Shark Returns for Another Bite
He holds that venue in utmost esteem. (Think Paul Lawrie shares the majority opinion of Carnoustie?)
The two are happily bound forever in historical marriage. David Duval and Royal Lytham. Rich Beem and Hazeltine. Retief Goosen and Southern Hills.
Then theres Greg Norman and Royal St. Georges.
Norman won at RSG in 1993. It was his second Open Championship title, having first won at Turnberry in 1986.
As the games oldest event makes its 10-year reunion to Sandwich, England, one would think Norman would be sitting on the deck of a yacht big enough to fit two of every animal, basting in the sunshine, melting in the remembrance of his final major victory.
The occasion? Perhaps. The setting? Not so much.
The trophy is really special to me because I believe that is the real, true Open Championship of the world, Norman said.
The venue, believe it or not, Ive never been a real big fan of Royal St. Georges. Royal St. Georges is a very quirky golf course. Its very hard to get comfortable on.'
Theres a lot of off-camera holes ' holes that go left and the fairway will kick right; a lot of blind shots. So you have to have the courage of A) your yardage, B) your lines and execution of your shot, because youre just hitting over the gallerys head and over sand dunes, hoping youre going to end up on the fairway.
Weathered and accomplished, the 48-year-old Australian has no time for faux romance.
Norman captured his second Claret Jug by posting a final-round 64. His 267 total ' 13-under at the time ' is the lowest winning number in the 131 years of the championship.
Given the final tally, it would seem that the Great White Shark whitewashed the field that week, but not so. Those numbers, those records, that play was necessary to prevail by a scant two strokes.
The one thing that stands out the most for me that week is the fact that it was the first golf tournament that Id ever played in where, pretty much, all the best players in the world, at that time, were playing well that week. It was like, if you make a par you were going to lose ground, Norman recalled.
What transpired a decade ago at Royal St. George's is something of which many fresh-faced golf fans are not familiar.
Were accustomed to watching Tiger take a lead into the final round and still hold off the field with nothing more than a fairways-and-greens 70. Maybe we get a Cinderella story. Or maybe we get to see a couple of players of equal ilk face off down the stretch on Sunday.
But can you recall the last time the top players in the world not only went head-to-head with one another, and actually didnt induce channel clicking?
Think. Think hard. Think back to 1993 at Royal St. Georges, where the principal characters were Norman, Nick Faldo and Bernhard Langer.
By the end of the 93 season, Faldo was ranked first in the world, followed by Norman, and then by Langer.
Others like Nick Price, Corey Pavin, Fred Couples, Mark Calcavecchia ' all of who had won or would win a major championship ' were also in the mix.
Thanks to mid-week rains, the course was soft and receptive, ideal for scoring. Through 54 holes, Pavin and Faldo, at 8-under, led Langer and Norman by a stroke.
We got a lot of rain on Wednesday night, Norman said. The course was very giving to us. You could play fairly aggressive golf on it.
It didnt take long on Sunday for the Shark to take a bite out of Sandwich. He birdied two of his first three holes to overtake the lead ' which he would never fully relinquish.
He stuck his approach shot to a foot at the ninth to card a front-side 31, yet still found himself only 2 up, as Langer and Faldo were keeping a slightly slower pace.
Norman was still in command through 13 holes. He stood at 12-under par, with the German and the Brit at 10-under.
Playing alongside the leader, Langer made a fatal mistake at the par-5 14th. Though he had used an iron off the tee in each of the first three rounds, he opted for the 1-wood this time. Teeing off in front of Norman, Langer pushed his drive out of bounds right.
Norman, not the conservative type, also used the big stick, and split the fairway. He made birdie; Langer made double bogey.
The 1985 and 93 Masters champion - Langer - put forth a furious rally coming home, but wasnt able to push through that one thick nail driven into his coffin.
Despite the disposal of Langer, Norman still had a few more foes ' Faldo and himself.
Three back at the time, Faldo, the defending champion, birdied 14 to get within two. It appeared as if he might move even closer, as Norman had 10 feet for par at 15. But Norman made the putt, and then hit a 5-iron at the 163-yard, par-3 16th to eight feet. The ensuing birdie bumped him to 14-under, again three clear of Faldo.
Of course, with Norman its never that easy. He missed an 18-inch par putt at 17 and then two-putted for par at the last. He entered the clubhouse at 13-under, and then waited ' as did the trophy engraver ' to be awarded his fate.
When Faldo narrowly missed a birdie putt at 17, he needed to eagle the par-4 finishing hole to force a playoff.
An unlikely scenario, unless it involves one Gregory John Norman. The man who lost the 1986 PGA Championship when Bob Tway holed a bunker shot. The man who lost the 1987 Masters to a 140-foot Larry Mize-authored chip-in.
The man who lost the 1990 Bay Hill Invitational when Robert Gamez holed a 176-yard 7-iron from the fairway for an eagle-2 on the 72nd hole.
Said a television commentator, Strange things have happened to Norman, but surely not this time?
No, not this time. Faldo drove his tee shot into the left rough and was forced to pitch out.
Faldo finished with a par for a round of 67, as did Langer, making Normans 64 just a stroke below victorys requirement.
Ten years later, Norman is still without a U.S. Open trophy, a green jacket or the Wannamaker. But he has his two Claret Jugs, and some very comforting memories in the fact the he played his best, and beat the best the world had to offer that week in South East England.
You dont get an opportunity to go up against six or eight of the best players in the world the same week very often, Norman said. And to come out on top makes it all-the-more special.
Norman will return as a defending champion of sorts this week. One who hasnt won a PGA Tour event since 1997, and has played in only one tournament since pulling out of the Players Championship with a stress fracture in his back.
Still, he once was great ' as displayed at Royal St. Georges a decade ago ' and still believes himself just a bit of good health ' hes taken two cortisone shots in his back in order to make the trip ' and a couple of good breaks ' like the ones that always seem to go against him ' away from being so again.
If my back holds up, I believe I can do it, Norman said of his chances of winning again at RSG. When Im fit and healthyI feel like I can do anything with a golf ball.
Rahm, with blinders on, within reach of No. 1 at Torrey
SAN DIEGO – The drive over to Torrey Pines from Palm Springs, Calif., takes about two and a half hours, which was plenty of time for Jon Rahm’s new and ever-evolving reality to sink in.
The Spaniard arrived in Southern California for a week full of firsts. The Farmers Insurance Open will mark the first time he’s defended a title on the PGA Tour following his dramatic breakthrough victory last year, and it will also be his first tournament as the game’s second-best player, at least according to the Official World Golf Ranking.
Rahm’s victory last week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, his second on Tour and fourth worldwide tilt over the last 12 months, propelled the 23-year-old to No. 2 in the world, just behind Dustin Johnson. His overtime triumph also moved him to within four rounds of unseating DJ atop the global pecking order.
It’s impressive for a player who at this point last year was embarking on his first full season as a professional, but then Rahm has a fool-proof plan to keep from getting mired in the accolades of his accomplishments.
“It's kind of hard to process it, to be honest, because I live my day-to-day life with my girlfriend and my team around me and they don't change their behavior based on what I do, right?” he said on Tuesday at Torrey Pines. “They'll never change what they think of me. So I really don't know the magnitude of what I do until I go outside of my comfort zone.”
Head down and happy has worked perfectly for Rahm, who has finished outside the top 10 in just three of his last 10 starts and began 2018 with a runner-up showing at the Sentry Tournament of Champions and last week’s victory.
According to the world ranking math, Rahm is 1.35 average ranking points behind Johnson and can overtake DJ atop the pack with a victory this week at the Farmers Insurance Open; but to hear his take on his ascension one would imagine a much wider margin.
“I've said many times, beating Dustin Johnson is a really, really hard task,” Rahm said. “We all know what happened last time he was close to a lead in a tournament on the PGA Tour.”
Rahm certainly remembers. It was just three weeks ago in Maui when he birdied three of his first six holes, played the weekend at Kapalua in 11 under and still finished eight strokes behind Johnson.
And last year at the WGC-Mexico Championship when Rahm closed his week with rounds of 67-68 only to finish two strokes off Johnson’s winning pace, or a few weeks later at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play when he took Johnson the distance in the championship match only to drop a 1-up decision to the game’s undisputed heavyweight.
As far as Rahm has come in an incredibly short time - at this point last year he ranked 137th in the world - it is interesting that it’s been Johnson who has had an answer at every turn.
He knows there’s still so much room for improvement, both physically and mentally, and no one would ever say Rahm is wanting for confidence, but after so many high-profile run-ins with Johnson, his cautious optimism is perfectly understandable.
“I'll try to focus more on what's going on this week rather than what comes with it if I win,” he reasoned when asked about the prospect of unseating Johnson, who isn’t playing this week. “I'll try my best, that's for sure. Hopefully it happens, but we all know how hard it is to win on Tour.”
If Rahm’s take seems a tad cliché given the circumstances, consider that his aversion to looking beyond the blinders is baked into the competitive cake. For all of his physical advantages, of which there are many, it’s his keen ability to produce something special on command that may be even more impressive.
Last year at Torrey Pines was a quintessential example of this, when he began the final round three strokes off the lead only to close his day with a back-nine 30 that included a pair of eagles.
“I have the confidence that I can win here, whereas last year I knew I could but I still had to do it,” he said. “I hope I don't have to shoot 30 on the back nine to win again.”
Some will point to Rahm’s 60-footer for eagle at the 72nd hole last year as a turning point in his young career, it was even named the best putt on Tour by one publication despite the fact he won by three strokes. But Rahm will tell you that walk-off wasn’t even the best shot he hit during the final round.
Instead, he explained that the best shot of the week, the best shot of the year, came on the 13th hole when he launched a 4-iron from a bunker to 18 feet for eagle, a putt that he also made.
“If I don't put that ball on the green, which is actually a lot harder than making that putt, the back nine charge would have never happened and this year might have never happened, so that shot is the one that made everything possible,” he explained.
Rahm’s ability to embrace and execute during those moments is what makes him special and why he’s suddenly found himself as the most likely contender to Johnson’s throne even if he chooses not to spend much time thinking about it.
Rahm focusing on play, not shot at No. 1
SAN DIEGO – Jon Rahm’s meteoric rise in the world rankings could end with him reaching No. 1 with a win this week at Torrey Pines.
After winning last week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, his fourth title in 51 weeks, Rahm has closed the gap on Dustin Johnson – less than 1.5 average points separates them.
With Johnson not playing this week, the 23-year-old Spaniard has a chance to reach the top spot for the first time, but only if he defends his title at the Farmers Insurance Open.
“Beating Dustin Johnson is a really, really hard task. It’s no easy task,” he said Tuesday. “We still have four days of golf ahead and we’ll see what happens. But I’ll try to focus more on what’s going on this week rather than what comes with it if I win.
“I’ll try my best, that’s for sure. Hopefully it happens, but we all know how hard it is to win on Tour.”
Rahm has already become the fourth-youngest player to reach No. 2 in the world, behind Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy.
Rahm: Playoff wasn't friendly, just 'nervous'
SAN DIEGO – Too chummy? Jon Rahm says he and Andrew Landry were just expending some nervous energy on the walk up to the fairway during the first playoff hole of the CareerBuilder Challenge.
“I wouldn’t have been that nervous if it was friendly,” Rahm said with a smile Tuesday. “I think it was something he said because we were talking going out of the first tee.
“I didn’t know Andrew – I think it was a pretty good time to get to know him. We had at least 10 minutes to ourselves. It’s not like we were supporting each other, right? We were both in it together, we were both nervous together, and I felt like talking about it might have eased the tension out of both of us.”
On Sunday, two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange saw the exchange on TV and tweeted: “Walking off the tee talking to each other. Are you kidding me? Talking at all?”
Strange followed up by saying that, in a head-to-head situation, the last thing he’d want to do was make his opponent comfortable. When his comments went viral, Strange tweeted at Rahm, who won after four holes: “Hopefully no offense taken on my comment yesterday. You guys are terrific. I’m a huge fan of all players today. Made an adverse comment on U guys talking during playoff. Not for me. A fan.”
Not surprisingly, the gregarious Rahm saw things differently.
“We only talked going out of the first tee up until the fairway,” he said. “Besides that, all we said was, ‘Good shot, good putt, see you on the next tee.’ That’s what it was reduced to. We didn’t say much.”
Tiger grouped with Reed, Hoffman at Torrey Pines
SAN DIEGO – Tiger Woods will make his 2018 debut alongside Patrick Reed and Charley Hoffman.
The threesome will go off Torrey Pines’ South Course at 1:40 p.m. ET Thursday at the Farmers Insurance Open. They begin at 12:30 p.m. Friday on the North Course.
Woods is an eight-time winner at Torrey Pines, including the 2008 U.S. Open, but he hasn’t broken 70 in his last seven rounds on either course. Last year, he shot rounds of 76-72 to miss the cut.
Reed, who has grown close to Woods after being in his pod during the past two international team competitions, is coming off a missed cut last week at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Hoffman, a San Diego native, has only two top-10s in 20 career starts at Torrey.
Other featured groups for the first two rounds include:
• Jon Rahm, Jason Day and Brandt Snedeker: 1:30 p.m. Thursday off South 1, 12:20 p.m. Friday off North 10
• Rickie Fowler, Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffele: 12:30 p.m. Thursday off North 10, 1:30 p.m. Friday off South 1
• Phil Mickelson, Justin Rose, Hideki Matsuyama: 12:40 p.m. Thursday off North 10, 1:40 p.m. Friday off South 1