Open start shows Spieth not just a great putter

By Ryan LavnerJuly 20, 2017, 4:47 pm

SOUTHPORT, England – Chomping away on a stale piece of gum, Jordan Spieth could have been excused for swallowing it whole as he sized up his nasty lie on the downslope of a bunker on the 16th hole.

Spieth laid open the face of his lob wedge and swung hard, splashing out to 15 feet. Just like the ol’ days, he coolly rolled in the putt to keep his bogey-free round alive and finish at 5-under 65, in a tie for the early lead with U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka and Matt Kuchar.

“It was the best shot of the day,” Spieth said, “no doubt about it.”

And it was the only time all day that he stressed for par.    

Though the remaining of his career will always be compared to what he accomplished in 2015, there are parts of Spieth’s game that – gulp – have never been better.

More dedicated in the gym and the kitchen, he and swing coach Cameron McCormick have been able to work around Spieth’s fitter body and tighten up his misses. As a result, he is ranked first in strokes gained-approach the green, third in proximity to the hole and fifth in greens in regulation. Put simply, he’s been the best iron player on Tour this season, leading to two wins (and likely a few more).

This might be difficult for some to wrap their minds around. For whatever reason, Spieth is the player fans love to knock. If there’s been one constant (and unfair) criticism throughout his career, it’s that he’s nothing more than an average ball-striker and sublime putter. That he can’t keep up with the likes of DJ and Rory and Hideki. That he can’t – and won’t – make those birdie bombs forever, and then he’ll struggle.

Those assumptions have been obliterated this year.

“I’ve struck the ball better than I did in ’15,” he said of his epic season in which, at age 22, he won two majors and came within four shots of winning the others.

“I’ve actually been in better position. If you took hole by hole, I’ve been in a better position tee to green than I was that year. If I putted the same as ’15, I’d be having a better year right now.”

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Fortunately for Spieth, iron play is the most important aspect this week at Royal Birkdale. Most players are approaching this famed links cautiously, with irons and 3-woods off the tee to avoid the numerous cross bunkers. And so, with nearly everyone in the 156-man field playing from the same positions, Spieth enjoys a massive advantage.

That was clear Thursday at The Open, when he putted for birdie on all but two holes and, on the rare occasions he missed the green, such as the 16th, he was able to rely on his world-class short game and defrosting putter. And it might be even more apparent Friday, when the wind is expected to howl and ball control will be at a premium.

“You need to have confidence in each ball flight and trajectory,” Spieth said, “because you have to hit them all in a tournament like this.”  

McCormick deserves an assist for Spieth’s 65. On Thursday morning, he brought out a TrackMan for the first time before a tournament round. The coach wanted to see how the ball was reacting in 55-degree weather compared to hot, humid Dallas, and the answer was Spieth was flying his irons about 25 yards shorter into the wind.

With that knowledge, his distance control was impeccable for much of the day.

“I was just trying to keep up with him,” said Henrik Stenson, who shot 69. “He was putting beautifully. I played with him in 2015 when he won his green jacket, and he was rolling it superbly that week, and I don’t think it was that far behind today. He made a lot of good putts out there.”

Which is true … because Spieth was in the proper position to attack. The quality of his iron play still gets overlooked.

Spieth missed a 6-footer on the last that would have pushed him one clear, at 6 under, and walking up the hill behind the 18th green he clapped his hands in frustration. It was one of a few makeable putts that could have elevated this round from “a 9 across the board” to one of the best he’s ever played. Those near-misses have been a familiar refrain for Spieth, who is 36th in putting this season – his worst ranking since his rookie year, but no reason to sound the alarms, either.

“It’s been the one thing that’s been off this year,” he said. “My ball-striking has been better than in any year that I’ve ever played golf. It’s been about capitalizing, which is frustrating, considering I’m used to seeing the ball go in.”

But now Spieth doesn’t need to be a lights-out putter to win. He doesn’t need to drain 33 percent of his 25-footers. He doesn’t need to mask the other deficiencies in his game.

All around, he’s a better player – and that’s a terrifying thought for the rest of the field.

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DJ shoots 64 to surge up leaderboard in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 1:48 pm

Dustin Johnson stood out among a star-studded three-ball that combined to shoot 18 under par with just one bogey Friday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Shaking off a sloppy first round at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, Johnson matched the low round of the day with a 64 that put him within four shots of Thomas Pieters’ lead.

“I did everything really well,” Johnson said. “It was a pretty easy 64.”

Johnson made four bogeys during an even-par 72 on Thursday and needed a solid round Friday to make the cut. Before long, he was closer to the lead than the cut line, making birdie on three of the last four holes and setting the pace in a group that also included good rounds from Rory McIlroy (66) and Tommy Fleetwood (68).

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, Johnson is searching for his first regular European Tour title. He tied for second at this event a year ago.

Johnson’s second-round 64 equaled the low round of the day (Jorge Campillo and Branden Grace). 

“It was just really solid all day long,” Johnson said. “Hit a lot of great shots, had a lot of looks at birdies, which is what I need to do over the next two days if I want to have a chance to win on Sunday.” 

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Closing eagle moves Rory within 3 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:57 pm

What rust? Rory McIlroy appears to be in midseason form.

Playing competitively for the first time since Oct. 8, McIlroy completed 36 holes without a bogey Friday, closing with an eagle to shoot 6-under 66 to sit just three shots back at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

“I’m right in the mix after two days and I’m really happy in that position,” he told reporters afterward.

McIlroy took a 3 ½-month break to heal his body, clear his mind and work on his game after his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro.

He's back on track at a familiar playground, Abu Dhabi Golf Club, where he’s racked up eight top-11s (including six top-3s) in his past nine starts there.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy opened with a 69 Thursday, then gave himself even more chances on Day 2, cruising along at 4 under for the day when he reached the par-5 closing hole. After launching a 249-yard long iron to 25 feet, he poured in the eagle putt to pull within three shots of Thomas Pieters (65). 

Despite the layoff, McIlroy edged world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, by a shot over the first two rounds. 

“DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now, and one of, if not the best, driver of the golf ball," McIlroy said. "To be up there with him over these first two days, it proves to me that I’m doing the right things and gives me a lot of confidence going forward.”

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Duke to fill in for injured Pavin at CareerBuilder

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:25 pm

Ken Duke will fill in for Corey Pavin for the next two rounds of the CareerBuilder Challenge – with nothing at stake but his amateur partner’s position on the leaderboard.

Pavin was 4 over par when he withdrew after 17 holes Thursday because of a neck injury. Tournament officials phoned Duke, the first alternate, and asked if he would take Pavin’s spot and partner with Luis Lopez for the next two rounds, even though he would not receive any official money.

Duke accepted and explained his decision on Twitter:

Playing on past champion’s status, the 48-year-old Duke has made only four starts this season, with a best finish of a tie for 61st at the RSM Classic.

Pavin received a sponsor exemption into the event, his first PGA Tour start since the 2015 Colonial. 

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Kelly, Sauers co-lead in Hawaii; Monty, Couples in mix

By Associated PressJanuary 19, 2018, 3:52 am

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii - Fresh off a solid performance on Oahu, Jerry Kelly shot an 8-under 64 on the Big Island on Thursday to share the first-round lead at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.

The 51-year-old Kelly, who tied for 14th at the PGA Tour's Sony Open last week in Honolulu, birdied five of his final seven holes to shoot 30 on the back nine at Hualalai. He won twice last season, his first on the over-50 tour.

Gene Sauers also shot 64, going bogey-free amid calm conditions. Thirty-two of the 44 players broke par in the limited-field event, which includes winners from last season, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.

Rocco Mediate and Colin Montgomerie were one shot back, and Fred Couples, Kevin Sutherland and Kirk Triplett were another shot behind.

Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, was in the middle of the pack after a 69.