Only certainty is uncertainty at The Open

By Rex HoggardJuly 19, 2017, 3:09 pm

SOUTHPORT, England – The last time the game’s oldest member-guest was played along this stretch of Irish Sea coast an Irishman blew through more championship dogma than the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 NBA finals.

Much like LeBron James and company, who became the first team to rally from a 3-1 series deficit last year, Padraig Harrington became the first European player to successfully defend his title at The Open since James Braid did it at the turn of the 20th century (1906), and just for good measure he did so from the poor side of what turned out to be a soulless draw.

Golf being arguably the most capricious form of sports predictability where the status quo rarely stands a chance, Harrington’s triumph was nothing short of inconceivable, which easily explains why any notion of a true favorite this week has been discarded.

Technically, Jordan Spieth has been installed as the man to beat, with local bookmakers moving the American to a 14-1 frontrunner early Wednesday, just ahead of Dustin Johnson.

But those easily identifiable regulars aside, the 146th edition of The Open is anything but regular or predictable, a reality that begins with a golf course that played to a 74.86 scoring average in ’08 when the claret jug last made a cameo to this corner of England, more than a stroke higher than the next-toughest layout that season.

Those who endured that slugfest remember fierce winds that made play nearly impossible on Day 1 with gusts to 35 mph, which makes a similar forecast for this week worth noting.

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Put another way, championships that are often decided by an untimely gust rarely stay on script.

 Yet beyond the obvious rub of links golf is a trend that is slowly inching its way toward tradition, with the last seven Grand Slam gatherings won by first-time major winners.

Gone are the days of Tiger Woods winning majors at such an alarming rate that players considered “B flight” honors a realistic goal some weeks.

Some think the phenomenon is the byproduct of a missing dominant player, but parity seems the more likely culprit with six of the top 10 players in the world ranking having won majors in the last three years.

“Golf is in a place right now where you have so many players playing really well, and a lot of the guys that are playing really well haven't won a major like, the likes of Jon Rahm or Justin Thomas or whoever it may be,” Rory McIlroy said. “No one is really standing out and sort of taking it by the scruff of the neck. But it's so hard these days to separate yourself.”

McIlroy explained the phenomenon is a reality of the modern game, where technology and cutting-edge teaching have dramatically narrowed the gap between the game’s best.

“That's why the margins are so fine, and that's why you're finding all these guys so closely grouped together because it's so hard to find that little percent or 2 percent that separates you from the rest of the pack,” he said.

But if the Northern Irishman’s explanation is the most comprehensive reasoning behind the trend, there’s also something to be said for the inevitable ebb and flow of even the game’s best players.

Consider that Johnson, who was the favorite at Royal Birkdale before being unseated on the eve of this week’s championship, was as dominant as anyone earlier this year after winning three consecutive starts, but he hasn’t played the weekend at a major since last year’s Open and is fresh off back-to-back missed cuts.

The same could be said of McIlroy, who has been slowed this season by injury and has missed the cut in three of his last four worldwide events; or Day, whose best finish is a playoff loss at the AT&T Byron Nelson and has missed the weekend in his last two events.

The truth is, it’s easier to make an argument for another first-time winner this week at Royal Birkdale, with players like world No. 2 Hideki Matsuyama seemingly poised on the brink of a Grand Slam breakthrough.

The Japanese star finished 11th at the Masters, second at the U.S. Open and proved his links prowess two weeks ago with a tie for 14th at the Irish Open. Or Rahm, who is fresh off his victory in Ireland and having proven himself against the game’s best with top-3 finishes at both this year’s World Golf Championships.

The most obvious choice to extend the first-timer’s trend to eight straight may be Rickie Fowler. Although he seemed destined to win his first major at last month’s U.S. Open, where he finished tied for fifth after a pedestrian closing round, he’s played some of his best Grand Slam golf at The Open.

In seven starts he’s missed the cut just once at The Open and finished runner-up in 2014, two shots behind eventual champion McIlroy, and fifth in ’11.

And these obvious choices ignore the normal standbys, like Lee Westwood or Paul Casey, who have both played well at The Open in the past but remain on the wrong side of the major margin.

“I think it's a really impressive stat and it speaks to the state of the game. There are a lot of tremendous young players right now,” Spieth said. “And then you've got guys like Henrik [Stenson] and Dustin [Johnson]. They are still young, but they have been around in contention many, many times – and sooner or later it was going to happen for them. And it did. It was just a matter of time for them.”

Picking a winner any week in golf has become a zero-sum game, and the modern major landscape has proven to be even more mercurial when it comes to anything even close to predictability.

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What's in the bag: CareerBuilder winner Rahm

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 10:37 pm

Jon Rahm defeated Andrew Landry in a playoff to earn his second PGA Tour title at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Here's what's in his bag:

Driver: TaylorMade M4 (9.5 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Fairway wood: TaylorMade M3 (19 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Irons: TaylorMade P790 (3), P750 (4-PW), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Wedges: TaylorMade Milled Grind (52, 56 degrees), Milled Grind Hi-Toe (60 degrees), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Putter: TaylorMade Spider Tour Red

Ball: TaylorMade TP5x

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Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 9:45 pm

Curtis Strange knows a thing or two about winning golf tournaments, and based on his reaction to the CareerBuilder Challenge playoff on Sunday, it’s safe to say he did things a little differently while picking up 17 PGA Tour victories in his Hall-of-Fame career.

While Jon Rahm and Andrew Landry were “battling” through four extra holes, Strange, 62, tweeted his issues with the duo’s constant chit-chat and friendly banter down the stretch at La Quinta Country Club, where Rahm eventually came out on top.

The two-time U.S. Open champ then engaged with some followers to explain his point a little more in depth.

So, yeah ... don't think he's changing his perspective on this topic anytime soon ever.

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Randall's Rant: The Euros won't just roll over

By Randall MellJanuary 22, 2018, 9:36 pm

The Ryder Cup may not be the King Kong of golf events yet, but you can hear the biennial international team event thumping its chest a full eight months out.

As anticipation for this year’s big events goes, there is more buzz about Europe’s bid to hold off a rejuvenated American effort in Paris in September than there is about the Masters coming up in April.

Thank Europe’s phenomenal success last weekend for that.

And Rory McIlroy’s impassioned remarks in Abu Dhabi.

And the provocative bulletin board material a certain Sports Illustrated writer provided the Europeans a couple months ago, with a stinging assault on the Euro chances that read like an obituary.

McIlroy was asked in a news conference before his 2018 debut last week what he was most excited about this year.

The Ryder Cup topped his list.

Though McIlroy will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National come April, he talked more about the Ryder Cup than he did any of the game’s major championships.

When asked a follow-up about the American team’s resurgence after a task-force overhaul and the injection of young, new star power, McIlroy nearly started breaking down the matchup. He talked about the young Americans and how good they are.

“Yeah, the Americans have been, obviously, very buoyant about their chances and whatever, but it’s never as easy as that. ... The Ryder Cup’s always close,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ll have a great team, and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”

McIlroy may have been talking about Alan Shipnuck’s bold prediction after the American Presidents Cup rout last fall.

Or similar assertions from TV analysts.

“The Ryder Cup is dead – you just don’t know it yet,” Shipnuck wrote. “One of the greatest events in sport is on the verge of irrelevancy. The young, talented, hungry golfers from the United States, benefitting from the cohesive leadership of the Task Force era, are going to roll to victory in 2018 in Paris.”

European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn won’t find words that will motivate the Euros more than that as he watches his prospective players jockey to make the team.

And, boy, did they jockey last weekend.

The Euros dominated across the planet, not that they did it with the Ryder Cup as some rallying cry, because they didn’t. But it was a heck of an encouraging start to the year for Bjorn to witness.

Spain’s Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour, England’s Tommy Fleetwood started the week at Abu Dhabi paired with American and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and won the European Tour event, and Spain’s Sergio Garcia won the Singapore Open in a rout on the Asian Tour.

And McIlroy looked close to being in midseason form, tying for third in his first start in three months.

Yes, it’s only January, and the Ryder Cup is still a long way off, with so much still to unfold, but you got an early sense from McIlroy how much defending European turf will mean to him and the Euros in Paris in September.

The Masters is great theater, the U.S. Open a rigorous test, The Open and the PGA Championship historically important, too, but the Ryder Cup touches a nerve none of those do.

The Ryder Cup stokes more fervor, provokes more passion and incites more vitriol than any other event in golf.

More bulletin board material, too.

Yeah, it’s a long way off, but you can already hear the Ryder Cup’s King Kong like footsteps in its distant approach. Watching how the American and European teams come together will be an ongoing drama through spring and summer.

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Quail Hollow officials promise players easier conditions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 22, 2018, 9:14 pm

Quail Hollow Club - a staple on the PGA Tour since 2003 - debuted as a longer, tougher version of itself at last year’s PGA Championship, receiving mixed reviews from players.

The course played to a lengthened 7,600 yards at last year’s PGA and a 73.46 stroke average, the toughest course in relation to par on Tour in 2017. As a result, it left some players less than excited to return to the Charlotte, N.C.-area layout later this spring for the Wells Fargo Championship.

It’s that lack of enthusiasm that led officials at Quail Hollow to send a video to players saying, essentially, that the course players have lauded for years will be back in May.

The video, which includes Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris and runs nearly five minutes, begins with an explanation of how the first hole, which played as a 524-yard par 4 at the PGA, will play much shorter at the Wells Fargo Championship.

“I had a number of my friends who were playing in the tournament tell me that tee was better suited as a lemonade stand,” Harris joked of the new tee box on the fourth hole. “I doubt we’ll ever see that tee used again in competition.”

Harris also explained that the greens, which became too fast for some, will be “softer” for this year’s Wells Fargo Championship.