A major, a marriage, and maybe a claret jug

By Rex HoggardJuly 17, 2017, 3:36 pm

SOUTHPORT, England – Cuanto más azúcar más dulce.

The literal translation from Sergio Garcia’s native Spanish is, “The more sugar, the sweeter,” but a more nuanced meaning was etched into the 37-year-old’s face when he bounded into the media center at Royal Birkdale to chat with scribes at The Open.

There is a notable spring in Garcia’s step these days that’s been missing at various points over his lengthy career, although when asked about his improved outlook he appeared to purposely gloss over the finer details.

“I don't think so. Do I seem like a different person?” was his response when asked if he has been magically transformed by his victory earlier this year at Augusta National.

For personal purposes it’s probably best Garcia doesn’t indulge in such an emotional deep dive at this junction in his career. Healthy, happy, hungry – nothing to see here.

This week is, after all, a big one for El Nino. The Open was always the one he envisioned winning growing up in Castellon, Spain.

“As a European, The Open is the one you relate to because I remember in Spain as a kid, we couldn't see the Masters on TV. The British Open, you could see it here and there, and also it was during the day,” he said. “You do kind of really relate to this one a little bit more.”

Garcia’s resume at the ancient gathering also feeds that narrative. It was at The Open where Padraig Harrington broke his heart a decade ago at Carnoustie and Rory McIlroy held him off in ’14 at Royal Liverpool for what are, by any measure, gutting near-misses.


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Everything about links golf works in Garcia’ favor. His ball-striking, which has always been the standard others aspire to, was a perfect fit for the cold, wet wind that can make the game’s oldest championship such a test, and his sometimes-pedestrian putting is mitigated by what are normally the slowest greens on the Grand Slam dance card.

He played his first major in ’96 at Royal Lytham as a 16-year-old amateur, and began his Grand Slam career as a professional three years later at Carnoustie when he shot 89-83 and sobbed on his mother's shoulder on his way out of Scotland.

That he arrives on the English coast this week with such momentum, both on and off the course, only fuels the notion that his name is destined to be etched into the claret jug.

Breaking through the Grand Slam ceiling at Augusta National has undoubtedly helped, but there are limitations to the correlation.

“Winning the Masters was amazing and it does give you a little bit of extra confidence, and I've been having a very solid year. So all of those things are great,” Garcia said. “But every week is different, and you don't know how you're going to feel when you go out there on the course.”

Perhaps, but off the course Garcia’s fortunes have improved dramatically in recent years and there is an undeniable cause-and-effect relationship between his personal and professional outlook.

Earlier this year he announced his engagement to Angela Akins and the two are scheduled to marry next week, and his performance on the course has dovetailed with that milestone. He began the year with a victory at the Dubai Desert Classic, hasn’t missed a cut anywhere in the world in 2017 and finished runner-up in his last start (the BMW International Open).

By comparison, although it’s anecdotal following his high-profile split with then-girlfriend Morgan-Leigh Norman in ’09, Garcia’s game went to a similarly dark place.

After winning The Players in ’08, Garcia went four years without another victory on the PGA Tour, he failed to qualify for the Ryder Cup in ’10 – the only time he’s missed the matches in his career – and tumbled to outside the top 80 in the world ranking.

“I felt I had to stop playing the game for a while,” Garcia said at the time.

Although he’s understandably reluctant to revisit those difficult days, the juxtaposition between his demeanor then and now is dramatic, regardless of how the numbers add up on his scorecard.

Bad bounces no longer burrow into his psyche like they once did and even his pre-Masters major record no longer haunts him the way it once did as evidenced on Monday when he was asked if having a green jacket in his wardrobe somehow makes all of those bridesmaid finishes a little more palatable.

“They're still painful because they're chances that you wish you would have taken and unfortunately you didn't,” he said. “It definitely made the Masters more enjoyable, I would put it that way.”

For a player who has always worn his emotions on his Gore-Tex, there was no denying the smirk that creased across his face when asked if this Open, his 21st start at the championship, is somehow different.

“I am excited about it. I am confident about my possibilities, but I can't tell you if I'm going to be right up there on Sunday with a chance,” he shrugged. “I'm hoping that I will be but unfortunately it doesn't work like that every week.”

Pressure can be relative. Expectations had built for decades before Garcia finally broke through at Augusta National and that really hasn’t changed at the major that has always meant the most to him. The only difference now is that life is still sweet, with or without a trophy.

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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

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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

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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 Web.com 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.