Punch Shot: Three big questions for the 144th Open

By Golf Channel DigitalJuly 15, 2015, 2:45 pm

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Where will Jordan Spieth finish? What are the expectations for Tiger Woods? Set the top three betting favorites aside (Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson), who is the best bet to contend? Our team at the Old Course debates these three topics on the eve of the 144th Open Championship.

  • WHERE WILL SPIETH FINISH?

JOE POSNANSKI: I think he contends. There are many reasons to believe he won’t – lack of experience, the intense pressure of the Grand Slam, unfamiliarity with St. Andrews, weather issues – but he seems somewhat immune to such things. His confidence level is sky high, his game is complete enough, and the Open does tend to reward those who are adept at the 15-20-foot putts. Plus, it would be such a great story. I think he’s in contention on Sunday.

REX HOGGARD: As impressive as Spieth has been this season, history is not on his side at St. Andrews. Of the five players who have won the Masters and U.S. Open in the same year, only Ben Hogan in 1953 managed to add an Open Championship trophy to the resume during the same calendar. Spieth will play well and likely finish in the top 25, but he won’t win.

RYAN LAVNER: Well, he’ll contend, because that’s what Spieth does – he’s finished outside the top 20 only twice since February. He won’t be fazed by the pressure of trying to capture the third leg of the Grand Slam. He won’t be unprepared. He won’t get frazzled by the changing winds or the unpredictable weather. All this kid does is stick to his game plan and hole more 20-foot putts than anyone in the game. (No, seriously, he makes nearly TWENTY-NINE percent of his attempts.) He’ll be squarely in the mix come Sunday, in line for even more history, because he hasn’t given me any reason to think otherwise. But the odds are still against him to win.

BAILEY MOSIER: Spieth winning his third consecutive major would be as fairytale-like as the town hosting this week’s Open Championship. It would be too good to be true. Then again, I’ve always believed you can live happily ever after. The man has already proven four times this season that his “winning formula” works, and with a forecast that calls for rain and 40 mph gusts for two of the four rounds, this week’s champion will have to combine skill, luck and patience. Spieth has heaps of the first and last, and after watching DJ three-putt from 13 feet on Sunday at the U.S. Open, I’m convinced Spieth’s got plenty of the second ingredient as well. 

JAY COFFIN: Spieth is playing too well not to contend. Sure, more trips around the Old Course would prove valuable but, simply, the man always finds a way to get the ball in the hole. He’ll play well, be in the hunt for most of the week, but will fall a few shots short and collect a solid top-10 finish. It won’t be the result he wants, and we won’t be heading to the PGA Championship with the Grand Slam on the line, but we’ll all think there’s a chance for most of the tournament.


  • EXPECTATIONS FOR TIGER?

POSNANSKI: This has to be the week for Woods. He’s on a golf course he has dominated, his game is finally pointing north and he seems to be healthy and feeling good. I want to believe. But the word in the question is “expectations” and at this point I don’t see how you can expect him to play well. All you can do is hope.

HOGGARD: Current form aside, Woods is optimistic and it is for good reason following his best finish this year in his last start at The Greenbrier Classic (T-32) and a track record at the Old Course that includes two Open victories. Like Spieth, Woods won’t win but he seems poised for a top-25 finish.

LAVNER: I picked him to make the cut at the U.S. Open and how’d that turn out? It’s funny how one middling finish at an easy resort course can sway public perception, but I can’t shake the feeling that Woods is going to play well this week. Is his game sharp enough to win? No, that’s a leap I’m not yet ready to take, but he showed marked improvement with his irons at The Greenbrier, he looked fine during his practice rounds here and his course knowledge will give him a chance to record another high finish on one of his favorite courses. A top-10 isn’t unrealistic.

MOSIER: Sure, there’s the old adage that you “can’t ever count Tiger out,” but I’ll take my chances of counting him out until he gives me reason to count him in. His play this year has been far too erratic, and the negatives far outweigh the positives. He’ll make the cut, but will finish middle of the pack.

COFFIN: No clue where to go with this one. I always thought this would be the place where he has a chance to play his best and following his Greenbrier showing there’s still reason to believe that. But what is Tiger’s best these days? I’m not sure. He’ll make the cut, play four rounds but will be insignificant by Sunday. A top-40 finish is just around the corner.


  • BEST BET TO CONTEND (THROW OUT TOP-THREE FAVORITES)?

POSNANSKI: Henrik Stenson seems like a great bet. He has the length, the slow greens should help his putting, he’s due. With all the talk about crazy weather coming Friday and Saturday, I suspect this one could go to a European player used to the conditions, which also make Justin Rose a threat. Or it could go to someone who knows this golf course well, which brings Louis Oosthuizen into play.

HOGGARD: The last time the Open was played at St. Andrews Paul Casey teed off on Sunday in the final group only to be run over by Louis Oosthuizen, who won by seven strokes. After a few difficult years dealing with injury, the Englishman has returned to top form and into the conversation at the Old Course with six top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour this season including a runner-up showing three weeks ago at the Travelers Championship.

LAVNER: Hey, it wasn’t a coincidence that Adam Scott put together his best performance of the year at the U.S. Open with Steve Williams back on the bag. Williams brings the best out of his man, and Scott seems to be back on track after a few months of listless play. Though he’s not as strong of a putter as some of the other top contenders, he’s actually better the farther he gets from the hole with the broomstick putter. The 25-footers at St. Andrews are the “make zone,” according to Justin Rose, and so it’s worth noting that Scott ranks in the top 25 in that category. If he can brush in a few of those longer putts he’ll have a great chance to capture the claret jug and redeem his 2012 collapse.

MOSIER: Lee Westwood. He’s making his 71st major championship appearance, so he has plenty of experience to draw from. He finished runner-up the last time the Open was held at St. Andrews, and held the 54-hole lead at Muirfield two years ago, ultimately finishing tied for third place.

COFFIN: I’m on the Louis Oosthuizen bandwagon, if there is such a thing. His impressive U.S. Open performance, coupled with a victory here five years ago at the Old Course, make him impossible to ignore. The only thing that makes me nervous is that he’s streaky. This season he’s collected five top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour, but also has recorded four missed cuts. Just a feeling that he’ll play well at a place he loves.

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Beef's beer goggles: Less drinks = more wins

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 6:07 pm

An offseason spent soul searching is apparently paying quick dividends for Andrew “Beef” Johnston, who is in contention to win Sunday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Johnston acknowledged he was “burning the candle at both ends” last year, playing both the PGA Tour and the European Tour, but he told reporters Saturday that it wasn’t too much golf that hindered his efforts.

It was too much “socializing.”

“I'm a social person,” Johnston said. “If you go out with friends, or you get invited to something, I'll have a beer, please. But I probably had a few too many beers, I would say, to be honest. And it reflected in my golf, and I was disappointed looking back at it. I want to turn that around and have a good season.”

Johnston posted a 6-under-par 66 Saturday, moving into a tie for sixth, three shots off the lead. He said he arrived in Abu Dhabi a week early to prepare for his first start of the new year. It’s paying off with a Sunday chance to win his second European Tour title.

“Last year was crazy, and like getting distracted, and things like that,” Johnston said. “You don't know it's happened until you've finished the season. You’re off doing things and you're burning the candle at both ends. When I got back from last season, sort of had time to reflect on it, I sort of said to myself, 'You've got to keep quiet and keep disciplined and get on with your work.’”


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


Johnston finished 189th last year in the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup standings. He was 116th in the European Tour’s Race to Dubai.

Johnston’s fun-loving personality, his scruffy beard and his big-bodied shape quickly made him one of the most popular and entertaining players in the game when he earned his PGA Tour card before the 2016-17 season. Golf Digest called him a “quirky outlier,” and while he has had fun with that persona, Johnston is also intent on continuing to prove he belongs among the game’s best players.

His plan for doing that?

“Just put the work in,” he said. “I didn’t put enough work in last year. It’s simple. It showed. So, just get down, knuckle down and practice hard.”

Rory McIlroy at the 2018 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship Getty Images

McIlroy making big statement in first start of 2018

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 3:40 pm

Rory McIlroy marched the fairways of Abu Dhabi Golf Club Saturday with that fighter pilot stride of his, with that confident little bob in his step that you see when he is in command of his full arsenal of shots.

So much for easing into the new year.

So much for working off rust and treating these first few months of 2018 as a warmup for the Masters and his bid to complete the career Grand Slam.

McIlroy, 28, is poised to announce his return to golf in spectacular fashion Sunday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

With back-to-back birdies to close his round, McIlroy put up a 7-under-par 65, leaving him just one shot off the lead going into the final round.

“It’s good,” McIlroy said. “I probably scored a bit better today, short game was needed as well, but I hit the ball very well, so all in all it was another great round and confidence builder, not just for this week but obviously for the rest of the season as well.”

McIlroy can make a strong statement with a win Sunday.

If he claims the title in his first start of the year, he sends a message about leaving all the woes of 2017 behind him. He sends a message about his fitness after a nagging rib injury plagued him all of last year. He sends a message about his readiness to reassert himself as the game’s best player in a world suddenly teeming with towering young talent.

After his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro, McIlroy is eager to show himself, as well as everyone else, that he is ready to challenge for major championships and the world No. 1 title again.

“It feels like awhile since I’ve won,” McIlroy said. “I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.”


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


A victory would be all the more meaningful because the week started with McIlroy paired with world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and reigning European Tour Player of the Year Tommy Fleetwood.

McIlroy acknowledged the meaning of that going into Saturday’s round.

“That proves I’m back to full fitness and 100 percent healthy,” he said. “DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now and one of, if not the best, drivers of the golf ball, and to be up there with him over the first two days proves to me I’m doing the right things and gives me confidence.”

It’s worth repeating what 2008 Masters champ Trevor Immelman said last month about pairings and the alpha-dog nature of the world’s best players. He was talking about Tiger Woods’ return at the Hero World Challenge, when Immelman said pairings matter, even in off season events.

“When you are the elite level, you are always trying to send a message,” Immelman said. “They want to show this guy, `This is what I got.’”

A victory with Johnson in the field just two weeks after Johnson won the Sentry Tournament of Champions in an eight-shot rout will get the attention of all the elite players.

A victory also sets this up as a January for the ages, making it the kind of big-bang start the game has struggled to create in the shadow of the NFL playoffs.

Johnson put on a tour-de-force performance winning in Hawaii and the confident young Spaniard Jon Rahm is just a shot off the lead this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour. Sergio Garcia is just two off the lead going into the final round of the Singapore Open. Tiger Woods makes his return to the PGA Tour at Torrey Pines next week.

To be sure, McIlroy has a lot of work to do Sunday.

Yet another rising young talent, Thomas Pieters, shares the lead with Ross Fisher. Fleetwood is just two shots back and Johnson five back.

McIlroy has such a good history at Abu Dhabi. Over the last seven years, he has finished second four times and third twice. Still, even a strong finish that falls short of winning bodes well for McIlroy in his first start of the year.

“I have never won my first start back out,” McIlroy said.

A strong start, whether he wins or not, sets McIlroy up well for the ambitious schedule he plans for 2018. He’s also scheduled to play the Dubai Desert Classic next with the possibility he’ll play 30 times this year, two more events than he’s ever played in a year.

“I’m just really getting my golf head back on,” McIlroy said. “I’ve been really pleased with that.”

A victory Sunday will make all our heads spin a little b it with the exciting possibilities the game offers this year.

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Garcia 2 back in weather-delayed Singapore Open

By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 3:06 pm

SINGAPORE - Danthai Boonma and Chapchai Nirat built a two-stroke lead over a chasing pack that includes Sergio Garcia and Ryo Ishikawa midway through the third round of the weather-interrupted Singapore Open on Saturday.

The Thai golfers were locked together at 9 under when play was suspended at the Sentosa Golf Club for the third day in a row because of lightning strikes in the area.

Masters champion Garcia and former teen prodigy Ishikawa were among seven players leading the chase at 7 under on a heavily congested leaderboard.

Garcia, one of 78 players who returned to the course just after dawn to complete their second rounds, was on the 10th hole of his third round when the warning siren was sounded to abruptly end play for the day.

''Let's see if we can finish the round, that will be nice,'' he said. ''But I think if I can play 4-under I should have a chance.''

The Spanish golfer credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for his first major championship title at Augusta National because of the stifling humidity of southeast Asia and the testing stop-start nature of the tournament.


Full-field scores from the Singapore Open


Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore in 2017, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the subsequent week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later. He is feeling confident of his chances of success this weekend.

''I felt like I hit the ball OK,'' Garcia said. ''My putting and all went great but my speed hasn't been great on this green so let's see if I can be a little more aggressive on the rounds this weekend.''

Ishikawa moved into a share of the lead at the halfway stage after firing a second round of 5-under 66 that featured eight birdies. He birdied the first two holes of his third round to grab the outright lead but slipped back with a double-bogey at the tricky third hole for the third day in a row. He dropped another shot at the par-5 sixth when he drove into a fairway bunker.

''It was a short night but I had a good sleep and just putted well,'' Ishikawa said. The ''greens are a little quicker than yesterday but I still figured (out) that speed.

Ishikawa was thrust into the spotlight more than a decade ago. In 2007, he became the youngest player to win on any of the major tours in the world. He was a 15-year-old amateur when he won the Munsingwear Open KSB Cup.

He turned pro at 16, first played in the Masters when he was 17 and the Presidents Cup when he was 18. He shot 58 in the final round to win The Crowns in Japan when he was 19.

Now 26, Ishikawa has struggled with injuries and form in recent years. He lost his PGA Tour card and hasn't played in any of the majors since 2015. He has won 15 times as a professional, but has never won outside his homeland of Japan.

Chapchai was able to sleep in and put his feet up on Saturday morning after he completed his second round on Friday.

He bogeyed the third but reeled off three birdies in his next four holes to reach 9-under with the back nine still to play.

Danthai was tied for 12th at the halfway stage but charged into a share of the lead with seven birdies in the first 15 holes of his penultimate round.

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McIlroy (65) one back in Abu Dhabi through 54

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 1:09 pm

Rory McIlroy moved into position to send a powerful message in his first start of the new year at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Closing out with back-to-back birdies Saturday, McIlroy posted a 7-under-par 65, leaving him poised to announce his return to golf in spectacular fashion after a winless year in 2017.

McIlroy heads into Sunday just a single shot behind the leaders, Thomas Pieters (67) and Ross Fisher (65), who are at 17-under overall at Abu Dhabi Golf Club.

Making his first start after taking three-and-a-half months off to regroup from an injury-riddled year, McIlroy is looking sharp in his bid to win for the first time in 16 months. He chipped in for birdie from 50 feet at the 17th on Saturday and two-putted from 60 feet for another birdie to finish his round.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


McIlroy took 50 holes before making a bogey in Abu Dhabi. He pushed his tee shot into a greenside bunker at the 15th, where he left a delicate play in the bunker, then barely blasted his third out before holing a 15-footer for bogey.

McIlroy notably opened the tournament playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who started the new year winning the PGA Tour’s Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii in an eight-shot rout just two weeks ago. McIlroy was grouped in the first two rounds with Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood, the European Tour’s Player of the Year last season. McIlroy sits ahead of both of them going into the final round, with Johnson (68) tied for 12th, five shots back, and Fleetwood (67) tied for fourth, two shots back.

Those first two rounds left McIlroy feeling good about his off season work.

“That proves I’m back to full fitness and 100 percent health,” he said going into Saturday. “DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now and of, if not the best, drivers of the golf ball, and to be up there with him over the first two days proves to me I’m doing the right things and gives me confidence.”