Saturday, February 27, 2021

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Preview: Korn Ferry Tour returns at LECOM Suncoast Classic

The wait is over. The Korn Ferry Tour is back Thursday at the LECOM Suncoast Classic at Lakewood National Golf Club Commander in Lakewood, Ranch, Fla., following a four-month hiatus on the 2020-21 wraparound season schedule.

Tackling such an extensive break brings out different methods of attack both on and off the course for Korn Ferry Tour members. On the course, some members played the PGA TOUR through sponsor exemptions like Davis Riley, and others like Nick Hardy showed their Korn Ferry Tour Monday Qualifier success travels to any level by advancing through the Monday Qualifier to earn entry into back-to-back PGA TOUR starts. Hardy stuck around for the weekend, too, with the world’s best with a T14 at the Farmers Insurance Open and T42 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. A number of players – Greyson Sigg, Brent Grant, Adam Svensson, Steven Alker and Will Bateman – chose more traditional routes, taking down wins on the mini tours. Ben Kohles, Mark Blakefield, Brian Richey and Ben Kohles had perhaps the most interesting victory, taking down the Timacaum Scramble together with a 21-under score for a $10,000 prize.

Others decided they just need a break from the game to recharge like Lee Hodges, No. 6 on the Korn Ferry Tour points standings, who hung up the clubs for over a month but found a new trainer and focused on his body and health. Shad Tuten, who finished the season with back-to-back top-25s, lost 10 pounds after starting pilates and played in a weekly game with PGA TOUR members Kevin Kisner, Scott Brown, and Matthew NeSmith. He also switched equipment to Callaway and spent the entire offseason trying find a driver that would show marked improvement from his 2020 efforts with the big stick.

“All of the last year, I was struggling to get into a driver. I’d never ever struggled to do that. That was No. 1 on my plate,” Tuten said. “My bag is the best it’s ever been. That’s comforting for me, knowing I’m going to go ahead and be prepared before the year rather than trying to search the entire year for a driver. It was horrendous.”

Chase Johnson, who is the current bubble boy at No. 75, used his time to make a major swing overhaul, hoping to eliminate the left miss – a change that he’s just starting to see the fruits of his labor from.

“I just have a tendency to get really across the line at the top. Then, in the transition, I get really stuck and rip across the ball and then flip,” Johnson said. “So, I bring in big blocks or massive hooks off the heel, which kind of defies the laws of physics.”

Prior to the change, Johnson could count numerous tournaments where the big miss cost him playing the weekend, like at Victoria National at the Korn Ferry Tour Championship presented by United Leasing & Finance, where he actually hit a shank on 16 in the second round after clawing his way back inside the cutline. Johnson’s new coach, Kevin Kirk, who coaches Lexi Thompson, Jhonattan Vegas and Mark Hubbard and formerly coached Patrick Reed, has worked diligently with Johnson on getting the club more in front of him. It came with struggles, though. He recalled a month in shooting 86 followed by a 46-32 the following day and thought his inconsistency made it fruitless to find competitive outings outside of the home games at Dye Preserve in Jupiter, Fla., with Corey Conners, Adam Long, Mackenzie Hughes, Michael Gligic, and Taylor Pendrith. Within the last two weeks, though, he’s found the ability to not only eliminate the left miss, but also work the ball left-to-right, which has him fired up for the season.

“Everyone who knows me has seen the mental change – the spark has been reignited and I can’t wait to get back out there,” Johnson said.

Away from the golf course, Korn Ferry Tour members were busy too. Roberto Diaz had a baby boy. Callum Tarren got engaged, while Anders Albertson adopted an Irish Setter, his first dog, and got into wood working for his new house.

Tuten, whose fiancée Beccah has Lupus, created a season-long fundraiser to support the Lupus Foundation of America, pledging $15 per birdie, $50 per eagle, and $500 per hole-in-one with hopes other will also donate and the campaign can raise over $30,000. Meanwhile, Hodges did what so many Alabama natives do in the offseason, chased ducks and deer while Johnson continued his self-proclaimed obsession with Harry Potter and theme parks by visiting Universal Studios and Disney a number of times.

Regardless of how players spent their offseason or where players enter the season on the Points Standings list, the goals aren’t much different for the season – PGA TOUR or bust.

“I guess Will [Zalatoris] points stay the same because he won’t be back on the Korn Ferry Tour this year, so that No. 1 spot is up for grabs and still in my reach. So I’m trying to get to that No. 1 spot or as high as I can get,” Hodges said.

Added Johnson: “The main goal is, especially with the improvement I’ve seen in the technique and shot making, is I really feel like this year I’m capable of putting myself in position to win more often like last year I had the runner-up finish in Colorado, but this year I feel like I’m trending towards a much more consistent pattern. My main goal is to obviously just like everyone else get that three wins and get the quick route to the PGA TOUR.”

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