As promised, Postage Stamp delivers carnage in Rd. 1

By Ryan LavnerJuly 14, 2016, 7:11 pm

TROON, Scotland – Let’s be clear: This was all Henrik Stenson’s idea.

“If you’re the kind of fan that wants to see carnage,” he said with a smirk, “then I highly recommend going out to that eighth hole and sitting in that grandstand on a difficult day.”

And so that’s precisely what your intrepid reporter did Thursday at Royal Troon, for 14 groups and nearly three hours.

OK, so by most Open standards it wasn’t a difficult day at all: Blue sky. Plentiful sunshine. Light wind. Low scores. And yet the eighth hole, the famed and fearsome Postage Stamp, still claimed plenty of victims, just as it has at every Open held here since 1923.

The picturesque hole maxes out at 123 yards, about the length of a football field. “And if it wasn’t famous,” Shane Lowry said, “then you’d probably stand up and think this is the easiest par 3 in the world.” But players, even the rookies, know better than that.

The teeny green is protected by severe runoffs and five steep bunkers, none more recognizable (or penal) than the Coffin Bunker on the left-hand side. The green is carved into a 25-foot-high dune, and in some sections it’s only nine yards wide. The hole got its name from Hall of Famer Willie Park Jr., who described it as a “pitching surface skimmed down to the size of a postage stamp.”

It’s the seventh hole at Pebble Beach, only more sinister.

It’s the 12th hole at Augusta National, only more treacherous.

It’s the 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass, only more dangerous.

Some days, like Thursday, players need only a flip wedge or 9-iron. (With just a wee breeze, there were 33 birdies.) But on Friday, with a cold wind blowing off the Firth of Clyde, one of the most diminutive holes in championship golf might require a 5-iron. Players are already preparing to get licked.

At The Open, players have recorded anything from an ace to a 15 at the Postage Stamp. It has doomed the chances of Tiger Woods and Greg Norman, of Walter Hagan and Herman Tissies, the German amateur who took a record 15 there in 1950.

“From 123 yards,” Colin Montgomerie said, “the expectation raises dramatically. You are on that tee and you are a professional golfer. It’s your job and you’re expected to hit this green at 123 yards. You could throw it on, really.”

And many probably wish they could.

Rory McIlroy made a 9 there in a practice round and the video went viral. Over and over, he tried to escape, only for his ball to smack off the riveted face and roll back to his feet.

It was an embarrassing moment caught on video, but the networks covering this event were prepared for even more disaster – cameras were carved into the faces of the greenside bunkers to offer a unique vantage point of the players’ misfortune.

Fortunately, there was no shortage of footage for a thrills-and-spills highlight, even on what was expected to be the easiest scoring day of the week.

A sampling of the frustration:

The Open: Full-field scores | Live daily blog | Photo gallery

Full coverage from the 145th Open

• Brandt Snedeker, after missing left, trudged to the green with his hands in his pockets. When he saw his lie, buried in the front-left corner, he muttered an expletive under his breath and covered his mouth in horror. He barely looked at the hole before spinning around, facing away from the flag, and blasting out toward the front of the green, 40 feet away. Bogey.

• It was a similar scene for Padraig Harrington, though his tee shot plugged about a foot from the front lip. He couldn’t muster enough backspin on his shot, and his ball trundled back off the front edge, into the newly named Rory Bunker, where Harrington was forced to play a sand shot with his right leg outside the trap. Double.

• Jason Day used only a pitching wedge, but he tugged his shot long and left of the green, onto a bank with footlong rough. “What are you thinking here?” asked his caddie, Colin Swatton, and the answer wasn’t immediately clear. Day scanned the entire green, his eyes finally settling on a sliver of turf on the back-right corner of the green, between two deep bunkers. He chopped out over the green, then used the backstop to get up-and-down for bogey. He exhaled walking off the green.

• Graeme McDowell’s tee shot was so far left, it hung up in the tall grass above the Coffin Bunker. It was an awkward stance, and he chopped down on the back of the ball, popped it into the rough and, to his surprise, saw it roll out about 15 feet. Andrew Johnston, playing in the same group, applauded G-Mac’s efforts. Walking toward his caddie, McDowell held out his wedge, like a shotgun, and put it to his temple. Bogey.

• Bubba Watson was 5 under for the day when he stood on the tee. He tried to “chip” a low, drawing pitching wedge into the right-to-left wind, but he hung his shot out to the left. When he approached his ball, he scrunched his face, crossed his arms and stretched his neck. His ball had plugged into the soft sand near the back lip, and after a brief consultation he determined that he had only one option – to send his ball into the tall grass behind the green. He executed the hard part, but then he misjudged his pitch shot, tried again (somewhat unsuccessfully), needed two putts from 15 feet and walked off with a triple, which matched the highest score recorded there in the first round. “I had one bad swing all day,” Watson would say later, “and it cost me dearly.”

But isn’t that what we desire most from the par 3s, to test a player’s precision with his irons? It’s what makes the Postage Stamp, like Pebble’s No. 7 and Augusta’s No. 12 and TPC Sawgrass’ No. 17, so special.

At last month’s U.S. Open, Oakmont’s eighth hole was stretched to 288 yards. It required either a driver or fairway wood for most players; some even laid up, believing that it gave them the best chance to make 3.

“I think the best par 3s in the world are all under 150 yards,” McIlroy said. “I really don’t get these par 3s nowadays that are 250, 260; it takes a lot of the skill out of it.

“No matter if it took me six shots to get out of the bunker the other day and I made 9, it’s a great golf hole. I think there should definitely be more holes like that in golf.”

OK, so maybe not exactly like the Postage Stamp.

Friday’s forecast calls for more rain and more wind. And yes, as Stenson predicted, even more carnage.

Getty Images

DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."

Getty Images

LPGA lists April date for new LA event

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 8:18 pm

The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.

When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.

The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.

The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.

Getty Images

Tour's Integrity Program raises gambling questions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 17, 2018, 7:00 pm

The video begins with an eye-opening disclaimer: “Sport betting markets produce revenues of $1 trillion each year.”

For all the seemingly elementary elements of the 15-minute video PGA Tour players have been required to watch as part of the circuit’s newly created Integrity Program, it’s the enormity of the industry – $1 trillion annually – that concerns officials.

There are no glaring examples of how sport betting has impacted golf, no red flags that sent Tour officials into damage control; just a realization that with that kind of money it’s best to be proactive.

“It's important that in that world, you can operate not understanding what's happening week in and week out, or you can assume that all of our players and everybody in our ecosystem understands that that's not an acceptable activity, or you can just be proactive and clarify and educate,” Tour commissioner Jay Monahan explained earlier this month. “That's what we have attempted to do not with just the video, but with all of our communication with our players and will continue to do that.”

But if clarification is the goal, a copy of the training video obtained by paints a different picture.

Although the essence of the policy is straightforward – “prohibit players from betting on professional golf” – the primary concern, at least if the training video is any indication, is on match fixing; and warns players to avoid divulging what is considered “inside information.”

“I thought the questions were laughable. They were all like first-grade-level questions,” Chez Reavie said. “I would like to think everyone out here already knows the answer to those questions. But the Tour has to protect themselves.”

Monahan explained that the creation of the integrity policy was not in reaction to a specific incident and every player asked last week at the Sony Open said they had never encountered any type of match fixing.

“No, not at all,” Reavie said. “I have friends who will text me from home after a round, ‘Oh, I bet on you playing so-and-so.’ But I make it clear I don’t want to know. I don’t gamble like that. No one has ever approached me about losing a match.”

It was a common answer, but the majority of the video focuses on how players can avoid being placed in a compromising situation that could lead to match fixing. It should be noted that gamblers can place wagers on head-to-head matchups, provided by betting outlets, during stroke-play rounds of tournaments – not just in match-play competitions.

Part of the training video included questions players must answer to avoid violating the policy. An example of this was how a player should respond when asked, “Hello, buddy! Well played today. I was following your progress. I noticed your partner pulled out of his approach on 18, looked like his back. Is he okay for tomorrow?”

The correct answer from a list of options was, “I don’t know, sorry. I’m sure he will get it looked at if it’s bothering him.”

You get the idea, but for some players the training created more questions.

How, for example, should a player respond when asked how he’s feeling by a fan?

“The part I don’t understand, let’s say a member of your club comes out and watches you on the range hitting balls, he knows you’re struggling, and he bets against you. Somehow, some way that could come back to you, according to what I saw on that video,” said one player who asked not to be identified.

Exactly what constitutes a violation is still unclear for some who took the training, which was even more concerning considering the penalties for a violation of the policy.

The first violation is a warning and a second infraction will require the player to retake the training program, but a third violation is a fine “up to $500,000” or “the amount illegally received from the betting activity.” A sixth violation is a lifetime ban from the Tour.

Players are advised to be mindful of what they post on social media and to “refrain from talking about odds or betting activity.” The latter could be an issue considering how often players discuss betting on other sports.

Just last week at the Sony Open, Kevin Kisner and Justin Thomas had a “friendly” wager on the College Football Playoff National Championship. Kisner, a Georgia fan, lost the wager and had to wear an Alabama football jersey while playing the 17th hole last Thursday.

“If I'd have got the points, he'd have been wearing [the jersey], and I was lobbying for the points the whole week, and he didn't give them to me,” Kisner said. “So I'm still not sure about this bet.”

It’s unclear to some if Kisner’s remark, which was a joke and didn’t have anything to do with golf, would be considered a violation. From a common sense standpoint, Kisner did nothing wrong, but the uncertainty is an issue.

Much like drug testing, which the Tour introduced in 2008, few, if any, think sport betting is an issue in golf; but also like the anti-doping program, there appears to be the danger of an inadvertent and entirely innocent violation.

The Tour is trying to be proactive and the circuit has a trillion reasons to get out in front of what could become an issue, but if the initial reaction to the training video is any indication they may want to try a second take.

Getty Images

Lexi looks to shine as LPGA season begins next week

By Randall MellJanuary 17, 2018, 6:06 pm

Lexi Thompson may be No. 4 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, but in so many ways she became the new face of the women’s game last year.

That makes her the headliner in a fairly star-studded season opener at the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic next week.

Three of the top four players in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings are scheduled to tee it up on Paradise Island, including world No. 1 Shanshan Feng and co-Rolex Player of the Year So Yeon Ryu.

From the heartache at year’s start with the controversial loss at the ANA Inspiration, through the angst in the middle of the year with her mother’s cancer diagnosis, to the stunning disappointment at year’s end, Thompson emerged as the story of the year because of all she achieved in spite of those ordeals.

Next week’s event will mark the first time Thompson tees it up in an LPGA tournament since her season ended in stunning fashion last November with a missed 2-foot putt that cost her a chance to win the CME Group Tour Championship and the Rolex Player of the Year Award, and become the world No. 1.

She still walked away with the CME Globe’s $1 million jackpot and the Vare Trophy for the season’s low scoring average.

She also walked away sounding determined to show she will bounce back from that last disappointment the same way she bounced back from her gut-wrenching loss at the year’s first major, the ANA, where a four-shot Sunday penalty cost her a chance to win her second major.

“Just going through what I have this whole year, and seeing how strong I am, and how I got through it all and still won two tournaments, got six seconds ... it didn’t stop me,” Thompson said leaving the CME Group Tour Championship. “This won’t either.”

Thompson was named the Golf Writers Association of America’s Player of the Year in a vote of GWAA membership. Ryu and Sung Hyun Park won the tour’s points-based Rolex Player of the Year Award.

With those two victories and six second-place finishes, three of those coming after playoff losses, Thompson was close to fashioning a spectacular year in 2017, to dominating the tour.

The new season opens with Thompson the center of attention again. Consistently one of the tour’s best ball strikers and longest hitters, she enjoyed her best year on tour last season by making dramatic improvements in her wedge play, short game and, most notably, her putting.

She doesn’t have a swing coach. She fashioned a better all-around game on her own, or under the watchful eye of her father, Scott. All the work she put in showed up in her winning the Vare Trophy.

The Pure Silk Bahamas Classic will also feature defending champion Brittany Lincicome, as well as Ariya Jutanugarn, Stacy Lewis, Michelle Wie, Brooke Henderson, I.K. Kim, Danielle Kang and Charley Hull.