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.

Thompson wins Race, loses tournament after short miss

By Will GrayNovember 19, 2017, 8:52 pm

The drama went down to the very last hole in the LPGA's final event of 2017. Here's how things ended up at the CME Group Tour Championship, where a surprising miss from Lexi Thompson opened the door for Ariya Jutanugarn to win in dramatic fashion:

Leaderboard: Ariya Jutanugarn (-15), Lexi Thompson (-14), Jessica Korda (-14), Pernilla Lindberg (-13), Eun-Hee Ji (-13)

What it means: There were scenarios aplenty entering the final round, with nearly every season-long accolade still hanging in the balance. Thompson appeared set to take them all as she sized up a 2-foot par putt on the final hole - a stroke that looked like it would take her to world No. 1 for the first time. Instead, the putt barely touched the hole and allowed Jutanugarn to rally to victory with birdies on the closing two holes. Thompson still took home $1 million for winning the season-long Race to the CME Globe, as it was a reverse scenario from last year when Jutanugarn won the $1 million but not the final tournament.

Round of the day: Sei Young Kim made the day's biggest charge, turning in a 6-under 66 to close the week in a share of 11th at 10 under. Kim made eight birdies during the final round, including five over her first eight holes en route to her lowest round of the week while erasing a third-round 75.

Best of the rest: Jutanugarn seemed like an afterthought as the tournament was winding down, but she kept her hopes alive with an 18-foot birdie on No. 17 and then capitalized on Thompson's mistake with a clutch birdie on the difficult final hole. It capped off a final-round 67 for the Thai who now ends what has been a tumultuous season with a smile on her face.

Biggest disappointment: Thompson faced heartbreak after the penalty-shrouded ANA Inspiration, and she again must handle a setback after essentially missing a tap-in with everything on the line. Thompson can enjoy a $1 million consolation prize along with the Vare Trophy, but a tournament win would have clinched Player of the Year honors as well as her first-ever trip to world No. 1. Instead, she now has the entire off-season to think about how things went awry from close range.

Shot of the day: There were only three birdies on No. 18 during the final round before Jutanugarn laced one down the fairway and hit a deft approach to 15 feet. The subsequent putt found the target and gave her win No. 7 on her young LPGA career.

Watch: Fleetwood gets emotional with family after Race to Dubai win

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 19, 2017, 5:30 pm

Tommy Fleetwood took home the season-long Race to Dubai title on Sunday after a T-21 finish at the DP World Tour Championship.

He was, understandably, emotional after learning his fate while sitting with his wife and baby following a career year in which he won the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship and the French Open and finished fourth at the U.S. Open.

Luckily for us, cameras were rolling:

Matsuyama after Koepka rout: 'Huge gap between us'

By Will GrayNovember 19, 2017, 4:22 pm

Hideki Matsuyama offered a blunt assessment after finishing 10 shots behind Brooks Koepka at the Japan Tour's Dunlop Phoenix event.

Koepka waxed the field en route to successfully defending his title in Japan, shooting a 20-under par total that left him nine shots clear of a runner-up group that included PGA Tour Rookie of the Year Xander Schauffele. Koepka's score was one shot off the tournament record, and his margin for victory eclipsed Tiger Woods' eight-shot romp in 2004.

Matsuyama appeared set to make a final-round charge after a birdie on No. 2 was followed by an ace on the par-3 third hole. But he played the next eight holes in 3 over and eventually finished alone in fifth place following a 2-under 69. Afterwards, he stacked his game up against that of Koepka in a telling comment to the Japan Times.

"I feel there's a huge gap between us," Matsuyama said.

The Japanese phenom entered the week ranked No. 4 in the world, though he will be passed in the next rankings by Jon Rahm following the Spaniard's win in Dubai. Matsuyama won twice this year on the PGA Tour, including the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, but he has largely struggled since missing out on a maiden major title at the PGA Championship, where he tied for fifth.

Matsuyama was a runner-up to Koepka at the U.S. Open earlier this summer, and the 25-year-old seems headed back to the drawing board before defending his title at the Hero World Challenge in two weeks.

"I don't know whether it's a lack of practice or whether I lack the strength to keep playing well," Matsuyama said. "It seems there are many issues to address."

McCormick to caddie for Spieth at Aussie Open

By Will GrayNovember 19, 2017, 2:21 pm

When Jordan Spieth returns next week to defend his title at the Australian Open, he will do so without his regular caddie on the bag.

Spieth and Michael Greller have combined to win 14 tournaments and three majors, including three events in 2017. But Greller's wife, Ellie, gave birth to the couple's first child on Oct. 13, and according to a report from the Australian Herald Sun he will not make the intercontinental trip to Sydney, where Spieth will look to win for the third time in the last four years.

Instead, Spieth will have longtime swing coach and native Aussie Cameron McCormick on the bag at The Australian Golf Club. McCormick, who won PGA Teacher of the Year in 2015, is originally from Melbourne but now lives in Texas and has taught Spieth since he was a rising star among the junior golf ranks in Dallas.

While Greller has missed rounds before, this will be the first time as a pro that Spieth has used a different caddie for an entire event. Greller was sidelined with an injury last year in Singapore when Spieth's agent, Jay Danzi, took the bag, and trainer Damon Goddard has subbed in twice when Greller was sick, including this year at the Dean & DeLuca Invitational.

Spieth's torrid 2015 season traced back to his win at The Australian in 2014, and he returned to Oz last year where he won a playoff at Royal Sydney over Cameron Smith and Ashley Hall.