Marriott, Nilsson on cusp of having a third No. 1 player

By Randall MellJune 6, 2017, 8:41 pm

Nobody else really does what they do in coaching.

Not in golf, anyway.

Nobody’s reach goes quite as wide as Pia Nilsson’s and Lynn Marriott’s in their Vision54 approach to teaching the game.

There’s a challenge in that.

What do we call Nilsson and Marriott? What kind of coaches are they, exactly?

There’s a challenge in defining their special contributions to the game as they release their fourth book this week, “Be a Player,” and as they help guide their third player to the Rolex world No. 1 ranking, with Ariya Jutanugarn on the cusp of the top ranking.

Yes, Nilsson and Marriott are both formally trained as swing coaches. They can break down swing technique, but their mission goes way beyond the skills they’ve gained studying swing mechanics.

Nilsson and Marriott do not pretend to be sports psychologists, though their intensive study of player behavior takes them beyond what a lot of sports psychologists do. The “field work” they’ve accumulated over 30 years, their observations of how players plan, execute and react to shots, has led to some of the most original analysis in golf coaching.

The “Think Box,” “Play Box” and “Memory Box” teaching models they created might make them the first behavioral-based teachers in the game.

“Advances in technology, equipment and fitness are great for the game,” Nilsson told “But `Be a Player’ is about the human skills you use to play the game.”

By human skills, Nilsson and Marriott mean what players can learn about themselves when they are playing well and what they can learn about themselves when they are not playing well. They mean awareness of behavior, emotions and thinking. They mean managing all of that.

“Awareness leads to clarity,” they write in their newest book with the help of Susan K. Reed. “Clarity creates choices. Awareness is at the core of our teaching.”

Vision54 burst to a higher profile with Nilsson and Marriott’s work helping Annika Sorenstam dominate the women’s game. They also helped Ai Miyazato rise to Rolex world No. 1. They’ve worked with Suzann Pettersen, Brittany Lincicome and Brittany Lang over the years, but their work isn’t limited to women. They also work with PGA Tour pros Russell Knox, Kevin Streelman and Arron Oberholser, and they relish their work with amateurs and recreational players.

So what should we call Nilsson and Marriott?

“We are performance coaches,” Nilsson said.

That’s sort of a new idea in golf, but it fits the larger role Nilsson and Marriott see themselves serving.

Nilsson, a former LPGA tour player, developed the “54 vision” idea coaching the Swedish national team. It was an idea that it was possible a player could birdie every hole in a single round.

“One of the things I noticed is that our players had some limiting beliefs, the belief that we couldn’t be as good, because our winters were so long,” Nilsson said. “That American and southern European players were better than us. The 54 idea was meant to address that kind of excuse making.”

Nilsson’s 54 vision was originally designed to get Swedish players focused more on what’s possible.

“It changed everyone’s thinking,” Nilsson said. “Annika was one of the first players who really took the idea to heart. It was one of the smartest things we did.”

Marriott was the LPGA’s Teacher of the Year in ’92, and she won the coveted LPGA’s Ellen Griffin Rolex Award for major contributions to teaching in ‘08.

Nilsson won the Griffin Award last year.

When Nilsson and Marriott formally formed “Vision54” in 1998, they expanded the “54” concept.

“We wanted people to embrace Vision54 as a philosophy, or a metaphor, or a paradigm, as far as looking at possibilities,” Marriott said. “We think Vision54 is an attitude.”

Nilsson and Marriott do more of their work with tour pros on a golf course than on a driving range, which also sets them apart. At tour events, they do most of their work walking practice rounds alongside players.

They’re big believers in that.

“Even as a technical teacher, the swing you need to be looking at is the one that’s made on the golf course, not on the range, because the one on the range is out of context,” Marriott said. “The epiphanies players have, the real changes, happen on the golf course.”

Back when Nilsson was the Swedish national coach, so many of her players already had their own swing coaches from their home clubs. So, she began looking for ways to supplement the coaching they were getting. She began intensely studying her players’ behavior on the course, to see how she could help performances.

Nilsson and Marriott look for more than shot patterns when they walk with players. They observe how players react to slow play, to shots and situations that make players uncomfortable, to how routines aid or hinder, and they note what body language reveals.

They have learned how caddie interactions affect different players. They’ve learned how reactions to bad shots stay with players and how personality types require different outlets to frustration.

“The Memory Box is never going to have much context working with a player on the driving range,” Marriott said.

“You aren’t going to see a lot of clubs thrown on the range,” Nilsson said.

Nilsson and Marriott aren’t allowed to walk alongside players in tournament rounds, but they say they learn so much even behind gallery ropes.

“It is so important that we are able to observe players in tournament rounds,” Nilsson said. “That’s where we get to know who they really are.

“A technical teacher may be more interested in seeing a swing on video, or on TrackMan, and dissecting it. For us, we want to see our players in competition. That is the most important thing to us.”

It’s what makes “performance coaches” the best possible description of what Nilsson and Marriott do.

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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.

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McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.