Muirfield's history meets modern reality in 142nd Open

By Rex HoggardJuly 17, 2013, 11:39 am

GULLANE, Scotland – The 142nd Open Championship isn’t about Man vs. Mother Nature, the normal undercard at golf’s oldest title bout, so much as it is a clash of conventional wisdom against the competitive realities of the modern game.

The weatherman will have his say – he always does when the game’s best descend on the ancient links – but this Open is shaping up to be a collision between Muirfield’s historical legacy and the capriciousness of parity in the modern game.

In one corner looms Muirfield’s major marquee. In short, the East Lothian gem doesn’t do flukes. The list of Open champions at Muirfield is a World Golf Hall of Fame roll call – Nick Faldo (twice), Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus, Ernie Els, Walter Hagen.

If you refer to a player in hushed tones, he likely won an Open at Muirfield. Unlike many of the other Open rotation layouts, the home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers eschews bad bounces and quirky breaks.

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“Look at the list of past champions. The number of Hall of Famers that there are who have won here,” said Tiger Woods, one of the few greats who hasn’t claimed a claret jug at Muirfield, but Mother Nature did have a say in that in 2002. “It just goes to show you, you really have to hit the ball well. You have to be able to shape it both ways.”

But Muirfield’s almost flawless cast of championship characters stands in contrast to the uncertainty that has become the norm in Grand Slam golf. Eighteen of the last 20 major champions have been first-time members of the Grand Slam club.

Some attribute the eclectic list of recent major champions to Woods’ fall from grace which has corresponded with an 0-for-16 Grand Slump for the world No. 1. That void has been filled, at least to some degree, by relatively surprising winners.

For Woods, who was quick to remind the press on Tuesday that he has won four times this year, his drought is the byproduct of injury and the pressure-filled realities of major championship golf.

“I think it's very simple, there's a lot of pressure in major championships, and you're also playing under the most difficult conditions,” said Woods, who has been sidelined since the U.S. Open with an elbow injury. “Generally in these majors you're probably getting close to the top 100 players in the world. And you combine the strength of field with the most difficult conditions and with the most heightened pressure, you're going to get guys making mistakes.”

The only mistake Woods may have made in 2002, the last time the Open was played at Muirfield, was playing his way into an afternoon tee time on Saturday. The storm that swept in from the Firth of Forth that day is still considered the worst in modern golf.

“It was like the end of the world,” said Joe Damiano, who caddied for runner-up Stuart Appleby at the ’02 Open.

Woods signed for a third-round 81, one of 10 cards in the 80s that dark day, and yet a Hall of Famer (Els) still emerged from a playoff a day later. It seems not even a proper Scottish gale can deny Muirfield a champion who was beyond reproach.

A similar hoolie doesn’t seem likely this year. A particularly dry and hot spring has produced a bouncy layout that is reminiscent of Hoylake in 2006 when Woods bunted his way to the claret jug.

The more pressing concern is what impact the wind will have on play. At the core of Muirfield’s greatness is a rare out-and-back routing for each nine that creates a circular loop that most Open courses lack.

At St. Andrews and Royal Troon, for example, each nine travels away from the clubhouse and then back, leaving, effectively, two winds for players to deal with. At Muirfield, one hole may play into the wind and the next will have a cross wind.

“Muirfield or Troon would offer the two best chances (to win an Open); because of the way the holes move, it's very comfortable for me off some of the tees, getting the ball in play, as well as around the greens,” Phil Mickelson said.

Although Woods is the consensus favorite for this week’s Open, Mickelson would have to be considered a close second.

Before 2011, when he finished runner-up at Royal St. George’s, Mickelson described his relationship with links golf as a “hate-love” affair.

“I used to hate it and now I love it,” Lefty said.

That affinity likely grew on Sunday when he won the Scottish Open on what is widely considered one of the country’s top new links courses at Castle Stuart (it’s also worth pointing out the last three Open champions played the Scottish Open the week before).

Mickelson certainly has the pedigree to join the who’s-who list of Muirfield champions, as does Els – for a second time – who will be vying for a unique double this week. The defending Open champion is also the last player to hoist the claret jug at Muirfield.

On paper, however, Graeme McDowell may be the player with the most up-side this week.

Having grown up in Northern Ireland at venerable Royal Portrush, McDowell is uniquely suited to links golf and claimed two of his three titles this year – the Volvo World Match Play and French Open on the European Tour – on links-like courses.

“The links-style golf is in my blood and I always feel like I revert back well to it. I naturally and instinctually can play well in the wind,” McDowell said.

But then the disconnect between favorites and major champions has been profound for the past half-decade or so. From Y.E. Yang (2009 PGA) to Trevor Immelman (2008 Masters) the Grand Slam script has become much more improvisational.

Whether Muirfield can alter that legacy and stay on script may be the week’s most intriguing matchup.

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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.”

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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.

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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 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.