Stenson's peaks and valleys before major summit

By John FeinsteinJuly 19, 2016, 12:29 pm

Soon after Tiger Woods had finished off his 1997 masterpiece at Augusta National, winning the Masters by 12 shots, he was asked if there was any possible way he could play better than he had during that memorable April weekend.

Woods smiled and shrugged his shoulders. “Well,” he said, “I did shoot 40 on my first nine holes.”

If someone had asked Henrik Stenson on Sunday evening at Royal Troon if there was any way he could possibly have played better on his way to an historic final-round 63, he might well have said, “Well, I did three-putt twice.”

In a sense, those two three-putts are what make Stenson’s victory in the 145th Open so amazing. Phil Mickelson, the man he beat in one of golf’s great duels, played a flawless round: an eagle, four birdies and no bogeys en route to a historic 65. If not for Stenson, they’d have written songs and made documentaries in future years about Mickelson’s performance at Troon.

They’ll still make the documentaries, but Mickelson will have to settle for the award as best supporting actor. This was Stenson’s star turn and it was both a long time coming and more than well deserved.

The irony is that Stenson’s nickname, the Ice Man, doesn’t fit him at all. Oh sure, he rarely shows emotion on the golf course and his eyes, the proverbial windows to the soul, are often hidden behind sunglasses.

It’s amazing what sunglasses can do to a player’s image: David Duval was always thought of as cold and reserved in large part because he almost always wore sunglasses when, in truth, he’s both warm and funny. And smart. Stenson is all those things. He also has a temper, which has on occasion, caused golf clubs to come to sudden, violent ends.

He’s also resilient. Three years ago, after an epic post-round locker room meltdown in Chicago, he came back a week later to win the Tour Championship in Atlanta.

Of course, playing poorly in Chicago was a tiny blip compared to other events in his life.     

The ups and downs in his career, on and off the golf course, are well documented. The plunge he took after a swing-change not long after his first victory in Europe; the even-deeper dive he took shortly after he had won the 2009 Players Championship – a drop that took him from a ranking of No. 4 to No. 230 in the world.

That slump – slump being a vast understatement – was caused by two potentially life-altering events: the loss of about $8 million in the Stanford Investments Ponzi scheme in 2009 and the loss of about 25 pounds of muscle after a bout with viral pneumonia brought on by coming into contact with a water-born parasite while on vacation in the Maldives.

Either disaster – financial or health – would have ended many careers. Stenson came back from both. If he’s justifiably bitter about having so much money stolen, he rarely shows it. “I was one of the lucky ones,” he said. “I had the chance to recover from what happened. A lot of people didn’t have that chance.”

He recovered emphatically in 2013 when, after finishing second to Mickelson at Muirfield, he won both the FedEx Cup and the Race to Dubai. In all, he won close to $18 million in his last 11 tournaments that year.

But if the hole in his bank account was comfortably filled by his play three years ago, the hole in his resume – the lack of a major title – remained. Unlike a lot of players who play the, “you know I’ll be very happy with my career if I don’t win one,” game, Stenson took the opposite tack.

“It would be silly for me to pretend it doesn’t matter,” he said, sitting in a Charlotte restaurant a couple months ago. “I can count. I just turned 40. I only have so many more chances left. I think I’m playing well enough to get into contention and, if I do that, I hope I can close the deal.

“I thought I had a real shot at it at Muirfield three years ago, but Phil just played too well that day.”

Which is why, as much as he likes and respects Mickelson, Sunday at Troon had to be about as sweet as it gets. Which is also why, disappointing as it was for Mickelson to lose, he could understand why the victory meant so much to Stenson.

“He deserved it,” Mickelson said. “He’s a really good guy and a great champion.”

There are all sorts of numbers that put into perspective the show the two men put on with the world watching.

The 11-shot margin between Mickelson and J.B. Holmes – which topped the 10-shot margin between Jack Nicklaus and third-place finisher Hubert Green at the end of the ‘Duel in the Sun’ at Turnberry in 1977. The 14-shot margin between Holmes and Stenson was three shots clear of Tom Watson’s margin over Green.

There was more: in golf’s greatest crucible – a Sunday in contention at a major – Stenson beat everyone in the field not named Mickelson by four shots. Rory McIlroy had the only 67. Thirteen players broke 70 among the 81 who teed it up Sunday and seven of them shot 69. Stenson and Mickelson went way low on a golf course that was a long way, literally and figuratively, from the desert courses of the Coachella Valley.

There will, no doubt, be much gnashing of teeth among golf fans about Mickelson’s loss. It isn’t a coincidence that the player he is most often compared with is Arnold Palmer, both in playing style and fan appreciation. Mickelson has spent years courting the public and has been re-paid for that with status as one of the most beloved players of all time.

For years, he practically blew off The Open, feeling he just didn’t have the game to win on links courses. Plus, he didn’t enjoy making the overseas trip. He would frequently fly on Monday night, practice on Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday, then tee it up Thursday.

“I’m just not that comfortable over here,” he said, standing on the putting green at Troon in 1997. “It takes me time to adjust to the time, to the weather, to the roundabouts, to the food and to the showers. Not to mention the golf courses.”

The next day, Mickelson shot 76 before bouncing back to finish T-24. Seven years later, on the same golf course, he finished third, one shot out of the Todd Hamilton-Ernie Els playoff. That close call changed his attitude. He began coming over early, playing in the Scottish Open to get used to all the differences and to embrace them. Nine years later, he won both the Scottish and The Open, his Sunday 66 at Muirfield perhaps his best round of major championship golf ever.

Now, he’s an adopted Scot, beloved there as almost everywhere else. He is the unquestioned leader of the American Ryder Cup team, the group’s “papa bear,” as Zach Johnson calls him.

But inside the locker rooms of both the PGA and European Tours, there’s probably no one better liked than Stenson. He’s famous for his pranks and his one-liners. In 2014, after his spectacular 2013, Golf Digest’s Franz Lidz asked if what he’d accomplished had changed his life much.

“Mostly it’s changed the amount of media attention I get,” Stenson said, deadpan. “Before, I rarely had more than five people come in when I was in the interview room. Now it can be as many as seven.”

Those days are now long gone. Stenson will get plenty of attention from the media in the future. More important, his legacy now has the exclamation point he wanted, and deserved, for so many years.

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The missing link: Advice from successful tour pros

By Phil BlackmarJanuary 20, 2018, 1:24 am

Today’s topic is significant in that it underscores the direction golf is headed, a direction that has me a little concerned.

Now, more than ever, it has become the norm for PGA Tour players to put together a team to assist in all aspects of their career. These teams can typically include the player’s swing coach, mental coach, manager, workout specialist, dietician, physical therapist, short-game guru, doctor, accountant, nanny and wife. Though it often concerns me the player may be missing out when others are making decisions for them, that is not the topic.

I want to talk about what most players seem to be inexplicably leaving off their teams.

One of the things that separates great players from the rest of the pack – other than talent – is the great player’s ability to routinely stay comfortable and play with focus and clarity in all situations. Though innate to many, this skill is trainable and can be learned. Don’t get too excited, the details of such a plan are too long and more suited for a book than the short confines of this article.

So, if that aspect of the game is so important, where is the representative on the player’s team who has stood on the 18th tee with everything on the line? Where is the representative on the team who has experienced, over and over, what the player will be experiencing? In other words, where is the successful former tour player on the team?

You look to tennis and many players have such a person on their team. These teacher/mentors include the likes of Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors and Brad Gilbert. Why is it not the norm in golf?

Sure, a few players have sought out the advice of Jack Nicklaus, but he’s not part of a team. The teaching ranks also include some former players like Butch Harmon and a few others. But how many teams include a player who has contended in a major, let alone won one or more?

I’m not here to argue the value and knowledge of all the other coaches who make up a player’s team. But how can the value of a successful tour professional be overlooked? If I’m going to ask someone what I should do in various situations on the course, I would prefer to include the experienced knowledge of players who have been there themselves.

This leads me to the second part of today’s message. Is there a need for the professional players to mix with professional teachers to deliver the best and most comprehensive teaching philosophy to average players? I feel there is.

Most lessons are concerned with changing the student’s swing. Often, this is done with little regard for how it feels to the student because the teacher believes the information is correct and more important than the “feels” of the student. “Stick with it until it’s comfortable” is often the message. This directive methodology was put on Twitter for public consumption a short time back:

On the other hand, the professional player is an expert at making a score and understands the intangible side of the game. The intangible side says: “Mechanics cannot stand alone in making a good player.” The intangible side understands “people feel things differently”; ask Jim Furyk to swing like Dustin Johnson, or vice versa. This means something that looks good to us may not feel right to someone else.

The intangible side lets us know that mechanics and feels must walk together in order for the player to succeed. From Ben Hogan’s book:

“What I have learned I have learned by laborious trial and error, watching a good player do something that looked right to me, stumbling across something that felt right to me, experimenting with that something to see if it helped or hindered, adopting it if it helped, refining it sometimes, discarding it if it didn’t help, sometimes discarding it later if it proved undependable in competition, experimenting continually with new ideas and old ideas and all manner of variations until I arrived at a set of fundamentals that appeared to me to be right because they accomplished a very definite purpose, a set of fundamentals which proved to me they were right because they stood up and produced under all kinds of pressure.”

Hogan beautifully described the learning process that could develop the swings of great players like DJ, Furyk, Lee Trevino, Jordan Spieth, Nicklaus, etc.

Bob Toski is still teaching. Steve Elkington is helping to bring us the insight of Jackie Burke. Hal Sutton has a beautiful teaching facility outside of Houston. And so on. Just like mechanics and feels, it’s not either-or – the best message comes from both teachers and players.

Lately, it seems the scale has swung more to one side; let us not forget the value of insights brought to us by the players who have best mastered the game.

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Woods, Rahm, Rickie, J-Day headline Torrey field

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 20, 2018, 12:47 am

Tiger Woods is set to make his 2018 debut.

Woods is still part of the final field list for next week’s Farmers Insurance Open, the headliner of a tournament that includes defending champion Jon Rahm, Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson and Jason Day.

In all, 12 of the top 26 players in the world are teeing it up at Torrey Pines.

Though Woods has won eight times at Torrey Pines, he hasn’t broken 71 in his past seven rounds there and hasn’t played all four rounds since 2013, when he won. Last year he missed the cut after rounds of 76-72, then lasted just one round in Dubai before he withdrew with back spasms.

After a fourth back surgery, Woods didn’t return to competition until last month’s Hero World Challenge, where he tied for ninth. 

Woods has committed to play both the Farmers Insurance Open and next month's Genesis Open at Riviera, which benefits his foundation. 

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Even on 'off' day, Rahm shoots 67 at CareerBuilder

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 20, 2018, 12:36 am

Jon Rahm didn’t strike the ball as purely Friday as he did during his opening round at the CareerBuilder Challenge.

He still managed a 5-under 67 that put him just one shot off the lead heading into the weekend.

“I expected myself to go to the range (this morning) and keep flushing everything like I did yesterday,” said Rahm, who shot a career-low 62 at La Quinta on Thursday. “Everything was just a little bit off. It was just one of those days.”

Full-field scores from the Career Builder Challenge

CareerBuilder Challenge: Articles, photos and videos

After going bogey-free on Thursday, Rahm mixed four birdies and two bogeys over his opening six holes. He managed to settle down around the turn, then made two birdies on his final three holes to move within one shot of Andrew Landry (65).

Rahm has missed only five greens through two rounds and sits at 15-under 129. 

The 23-year-old Spaniard won in Dubai to end the year and opened 2018 with a runner-up finish at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. He needs a top-6 finish or better this week to supplant Jordan Spieth as the No. 2 player in the world.

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Landry stays hot, leads desert shootout at CareerBuilder

By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 12:35 am

LA QUINTA, Calif. – Andrew Landry topped the crowded CareerBuilder Challenge leaderboard after another low-scoring day in the sunny Coachella Valley.

Landry shot a 7-under 65 on Thursday on PGA West's Jack Nicklaus Tournament Course to reach 16 under. He opened with a 63 on Thursday at La Quinta Country Club.

''Wind was down again,'' Landry said. ''It's like a dome out here.''

Jon Rahm, the first-round leader after a 62 at La Quinta, was a stroke back. He had two early bogeys in a 67 on the Nicklaus layout.

''It's tough to come back because I feel like I expected myself to go to the range and keep just flushing everything like I did yesterday,'' Rahm said. ''Everything was just a little bit off.''

Jason Kokrak was 14 under after a 67 at Nicklaus. Two-time major champion Zach Johnson was 13 under along with Michael Kim and Martin Piller. Johnson had a 64 at Nicklaus.

Full-field scores from the Career Builder Challenge

CareerBuilder Challenge: Articles, photos and videos

Landry, Rahm, Kokrak and Johnson will finish the rotation Saturday at PGA West's Stadium Course, also the site of the final round.

''You need to hit it a lot more accurate off the tee because being in the fairway is a lot more important,'' Rahm said about the Pete Dye-designed Stadium Course, a layout the former Arizona State player likened to the Dye-designed Karsten course on the school's campus. ''With the small greens, you have water in play. You need to be more precise. Clearly the hardest golf course.''

Landry pointed to the Saturday forecast.

''I think the wind's supposed to be up like 10 to 20 mph or something, so I know that golf course can get a little mean,'' Landry said. ''Especially, those last three or four holes.''

The 30-year-old former Arkansas player had five birdies in a six-hole stretch on the back nine. After winning his second Tour title last year, he had two top-10 finishes in October and November at the start the PGA Tour season.

''We're in a good spot right now,'' Landry said. ''I played two good rounds of golf, bogey-free both times, and it's just nice to be able to hit a lot of good quality shots and get rewarded when you're making good putts.''

Rahm had four birdies and the two bogeys on his first six holes. He short-sided himself in the left bunker on the par-3 12th for his first bogey of the week and three-putted the par-4 14th – pulling a 3-footer and loudly asking ''What?'' – to drop another stroke.

''A couple of those bad swings cost me,'' Rahm said.

The top-ranked player in the field at No. 3 in the world, Rahm made his first par of the day on the par-4 16th and followed with five more before birdieing the par-5 fourth. The 23-year-old Spaniard also birdied the par-5 seventh and par-3 eighth.

''I had close birdie putts over the last four holes and made two of them, so I think that kind of clicked,'' said Rahm, set to defend his title next week at Torrey Pines.

He has played the par 5s in 9 under with an eagle and seven birdies.

Johnson has taken a relaxed approach to the week, cutting his practice to two nine-hole rounds on the Stadium Course.

''I'm not saying that's why I'm playing well, but I took it really chill and the golf courses haven't changed,'' Johnson said. ''La Quinta's still really pure, right out in front of you, as is the Nicklaus.''

Playing partner Phil Mickelson followed his opening 70 at La Quinta with a 68 at Nicklaus to get to 6 under. The 47-year-old Hall of Famer is playing his first tournament of since late October.

''The scores obviously aren't what I want, but it's pretty close and I feel good about my game,'' Mickelson said. ''I feel like this is a great place to start the year and build a foundation for my game. It's easy to identify the strengths and weaknesses. My iron play has been poor relative to the standards that I have. My driving has been above average.''

Charlie Reiter, the Palm Desert High School senior playing on a sponsor exemption, had a 70 at Nicklaus to match Mickelson at 6 under. The Southern California recruit is playing his first PGA Tour event. He tied for 65th in the Australian Open in November in his first start in a professional tournament.