Punch Shot: Burning questions for the 146th Open

By Golf Channel DigitalJuly 19, 2017, 3:25 pm

SOUTHPORT, England – He were are, on the eve of the 146th Open and each of the last seven major winners have been first-timers. Will that trend continue? Who will contend this week that we may not expect to contend? What will the magic score be to capture the claret jug? Our team at Royal Birkdale answers all of the above.

Will the trend of first-time major winners continue this week?

REX HOGGARD: YES. Not only is it likely that the trend of first-time major winners will continue, but it seems inevitable at this juncture considering that many of the game’s current major champions – Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, etc. – have been slowed by an assortment of issues this season.

RYAN LAVNER: YES. Would it really surprise anyone if Rickie Fowler, Jon Rahm or Hideki Matsuyama hoisted the claret jug on Sunday? Fourteen of the top 25 players in the world haven’t won a major. Any of ’em could win this one.  

WILL GRAY: NO. Royal Birkdale has a history of rewarding experience and pedigree. Seven of the nine prior times it hosted The Open, the claret jug went to a player who had already won a major.

The current trend came because there were a number of deserving players still without a major. Now that that particular crowd has thinned, expect a familiar face in the winner’s circle come Sunday.

JAY COFFIN: YES. It makes me chuckle that this has become such a big deal. Were Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, Sergio Garcia and Brooks Koepka surprise winners? No. And there are still too many stud candidates who continue to fit this bill – Hideki Matsuyama, Jon Rahm, Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas to name a few. The trend will continue (leaning toward Fowler) and it will continue to not be a shock.

Pick someone flying under the radar who can contend.

HOGGARD: BRIAN HARMAN. Despite two PGA Tour victories, he is often overlooked, but the southpaw has two advantages this week starting with a course that mitigates the power advantage enjoyed by some players. The other is a need for dogged determination, which Harman has plenty of.

LAVNER: PETER UIHLEIN. Following Brooks Koepka’s lead, perhaps it’s the former No. 1-ranked amateur’s time to shine. Uihlein has toiled in Europe for the past few years and is beginning to come into his own, now ranked inside the top 100 in the world. This year he has five top-10s, including a runner-up a few weeks ago in France and another top-15 in Ireland. He shouldn’t be flustered by the difficult conditions.

GRAY: WEBB SIMPSON. Don’t be surprised if he works his way onto the big yellow leaderboards. Simpson hasn’t cracked the top 10 in a major since his surprise win at Olympic, but he has made the cut in four of five Open appearances including a T-16 in his 2011 debut. He’s beginning to turn things around with five finishes of T-16 or better in his last eight starts.

COFFIN: ZACH JOHNSON. I know, it’s nuts. He’s not played well at all this year. But I’m looking at how well he played last week at the John Deere Classic (like he always does) and I’m looking at his Open record (four top-12 finishes in the last five years and hasn’t missed a cut since 2006) and I think he can easily record a top finish this week.

Predict the winning score.

HOGGARD: 2 UNDER. In 2008 Padraig Harrington won at Royal Birkdale with a 3-over total in tough conditions. A similar forecast this week would suggest something close to that.

LAVNER: 7 UNDER. Much depends on the weather, of course, but with a gettable closing stretch (two par 5s in the last four holes) there should be a few decent numbers out there if the guys can hang on early. Sure, if the wind howls to 35 mph, all bets are off, but it’s not unreasonable to think that the players in the best form can shoot somewhere around par all four days.

GRAY: 4 UNDER. This is not a course where fans can expect the eye-popping scores Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson put up last year and 3 over and even have won each of the last two Opens at Royal Birkdale. The 272 aggregate posted by Ian Baker-Finch in 1991 remains the lowest four-round total here. Weather will inevitably play a factor, and par will often be acceptable on a layout where players won’t see a par-5 until No. 15.

COFFIN: 6 UNDER. It’s impossible to know precisely what sort of weather will unfold but so far it hasn’t been anywhere near as nasty as it was predicted. Best guess is that it’ll be difficult but not crazy impossible over four days and that the winner will be able to get it around in under par each day.

Thompson wins Race, loses tournament after short miss

By Will GrayNovember 19, 2017, 8:52 pm

The drama went down to the very last hole in the LPGA's final event of 2017. Here's how things ended up at the CME Group Tour Championship, where a surprising miss from Lexi Thompson opened the door for Ariya Jutanugarn to win in dramatic fashion:

Leaderboard: Ariya Jutanugarn (-15), Lexi Thompson (-14), Jessica Korda (-14), Pernilla Lindberg (-13), Eun-Hee Ji (-13)

What it means: There were scenarios aplenty entering the final round, with nearly every season-long accolade still hanging in the balance. Thompson appeared set to take them all as she sized up a 2-foot par putt on the final hole - a stroke that looked like it would take her to world No. 1 for the first time. Instead, the putt barely touched the hole and allowed Jutanugarn to rally to victory with birdies on the closing two holes. Thompson still took home $1 million for winning the season-long Race to the CME Globe, as it was a reverse scenario from last year when Jutanugarn won the $1 million but not the final tournament.

Round of the day: Sei Young Kim made the day's biggest charge, turning in a 6-under 66 to close the week in a share of 11th at 10 under. Kim made eight birdies during the final round, including five over her first eight holes en route to her lowest round of the week while erasing a third-round 75.

Best of the rest: Jutanugarn seemed like an afterthought as the tournament was winding down, but she kept her hopes alive with an 18-foot birdie on No. 17 and then capitalized on Thompson's mistake with a clutch birdie on the difficult final hole. It capped off a final-round 67 for the Thai who now ends what has been a tumultuous season with a smile on her face.

Biggest disappointment: Thompson faced heartbreak after the penalty-shrouded ANA Inspiration, and she again must handle a setback after essentially missing a tap-in with everything on the line. Thompson can enjoy a $1 million consolation prize along with the Vare Trophy, but a tournament win would have clinched Player of the Year honors as well as her first-ever trip to world No. 1. Instead, she now has the entire off-season to think about how things went awry from close range.

Shot of the day: There were only three birdies on No. 18 during the final round before Jutanugarn laced one down the fairway and hit a deft approach to 15 feet. The subsequent putt found the target and gave her win No. 7 on her young LPGA career.

Watch: Fleetwood gets emotional with family after Race to Dubai win

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 19, 2017, 5:30 pm

Tommy Fleetwood took home the season-long Race to Dubai title on Sunday after a T-21 finish at the DP World Tour Championship.

He was, understandably, emotional after learning his fate while sitting with his wife and baby following a career year in which he won the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship and the French Open and finished fourth at the U.S. Open.

Luckily for us, cameras were rolling:

Matsuyama after Koepka rout: 'Huge gap between us'

By Will GrayNovember 19, 2017, 4:22 pm

Hideki Matsuyama offered a blunt assessment after finishing 10 shots behind Brooks Koepka at the Japan Tour's Dunlop Phoenix event.

Koepka waxed the field en route to successfully defending his title in Japan, shooting a 20-under par total that left him nine shots clear of a runner-up group that included PGA Tour Rookie of the Year Xander Schauffele. Koepka's score was one shot off the tournament record, and his margin for victory eclipsed Tiger Woods' eight-shot romp in 2004.

Matsuyama appeared set to make a final-round charge after a birdie on No. 2 was followed by an ace on the par-3 third hole. But he played the next eight holes in 3 over and eventually finished alone in fifth place following a 2-under 69. Afterwards, he stacked his game up against that of Koepka in a telling comment to the Japan Times.

"I feel there's a huge gap between us," Matsuyama said.

The Japanese phenom entered the week ranked No. 4 in the world, though he will be passed in the next rankings by Jon Rahm following the Spaniard's win in Dubai. Matsuyama won twice this year on the PGA Tour, including the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, but he has largely struggled since missing out on a maiden major title at the PGA Championship, where he tied for fifth.

Matsuyama was a runner-up to Koepka at the U.S. Open earlier this summer, and the 25-year-old seems headed back to the drawing board before defending his title at the Hero World Challenge in two weeks.

"I don't know whether it's a lack of practice or whether I lack the strength to keep playing well," Matsuyama said. "It seems there are many issues to address."

McCormick to caddie for Spieth at Aussie Open

By Will GrayNovember 19, 2017, 2:21 pm

When Jordan Spieth returns next week to defend his title at the Australian Open, he will do so without his regular caddie on the bag.

Spieth and Michael Greller have combined to win 14 tournaments and three majors, including three events in 2017. But Greller's wife, Ellie, gave birth to the couple's first child on Oct. 13, and according to a report from the Australian Herald Sun he will not make the intercontinental trip to Sydney, where Spieth will look to win for the third time in the last four years.

Instead, Spieth will have longtime swing coach and native Aussie Cameron McCormick on the bag at The Australian Golf Club. McCormick, who won PGA Teacher of the Year in 2015, is originally from Melbourne but now lives in Texas and has taught Spieth since he was a rising star among the junior golf ranks in Dallas.

While Greller has missed rounds before, this will be the first time as a pro that Spieth has used a different caddie for an entire event. Greller was sidelined with an injury last year in Singapore when Spieth's agent, Jay Danzi, took the bag, and trainer Damon Goddard has subbed in twice when Greller was sick, including this year at the Dean & DeLuca Invitational.

Spieth's torrid 2015 season traced back to his win at The Australian in 2014, and he returned to Oz last year where he won a playoff at Royal Sydney over Cameron Smith and Ashley Hall.