Spieth a master of preparation

By Ryan LavnerAugust 12, 2015, 10:42 pm

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – There are obvious benefits to those practice-round money games: bragging rights, hitting shots that matter, and, yes, a little extra pocket change when things work out, as they did here Tuesday, with Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas handing Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler a 1-up defeat.

But for Spieth, the more important work was done Wednesday at Whistling Straits. Throwing down balls in gnarly rough, sizing up runoffs and slashing out of the inconsistent bunkers, he treated his nine-hole practice round like a complex math equation, testing all of the variables, trying to find the best solution.

It was Spieth at his tactical best, and it’s one of the biggest – and most underappreciated – reasons why he has climbed to No. 2 in the world in only his third year as a pro.

“He’s always been really high on the golf IQ spectrum,” said Spieth’s instructor, Cameron McCormick. “I call it tactical intelligence. He takes in information really, really quickly, and he can go from very broad to very narrow and center in on it, whether he’s looking at a yardage book, or whether he’s played the hole only once.”

Indeed, for all of Spieth's myriad gifts – his envy-inducing short game, his magical putter, his relentless attitude – this is arguably his most impressive: He’s proven to be a quick study.

Spieth began the 2013 season with no status on any major tour, playing courses that he had seen only on TV. Rookies typically struggle their first year out as they adjust to life on the road or a full schedule, but not this kid. He shot 13 rounds of 65 or better, won once, posted three runners-up, recorded nine top-10s and 13 top-25s and, perhaps most impressive, missed only five cuts.

How was he able to adapt so quickly?

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“I didn’t really have another choice,” he said. “You either do it or you don’t have a job. If you don’t learn quickly how to play golf courses that you haven’t played before, you’re going to be very, very far behind. I don’t know how, other than just realizing that it was live or die."

In preparation for his first Masters, Spieth played Augusta National with McCormick in fall 2013. One of McCormick’s biggest takeaways was that, surprisingly, it didn’t require a tremendous amount of prior knowledge. Sure enough, Spieth shot par or better all four rounds in his debut, shared the 54-hole lead and tied for second. He won the very next year, of course, and tied the tournament scoring record.

TPC Sawgrass is one of the most diabolical layouts on the Tour schedule, a design that usually requires years of trial and error to learn the best angles of attack. Yet in his first start there as a pro, Spieth shared the third-round lead.

Course knowledge can be just as important as form at St. Andrews. Spieth had seen the most famous links in the world only once in person, during a round with some of his Walker Cup teammates in 2011, and then on his home simulator. He arrived for the biggest tournament of his life late on a Monday, played a full practice round, and added 28 more holes over the next two days.

After playing the Wednesday practice round on the Old Course, it became apparent to McCormick that they hadn’t gathered all of the information that they needed. With the shifting winds, they didn’t know the line for the layup to the left of the fairway on the par-5 14th. It was a point of reference that Spieth would need to draw from, so after the round caddie Michael Greller headed back out to the hole and jotted down a few notes.

The next day, with all of the Grand Slam hype swirling around him, Spieth shot 67 in the opening round.

“It’s about paying attention,” said McCormick, who was recently named the PGA National Teacher of the Year. “The player that maybe is complacent and talking to his player partners, the player who maybe is more interested in the social aspect just as much as the exercise of playing a practice round, that player might miss that. And then he might get to that situation and say, ‘Now what do I do?’ You hit a shot with certain unknowns. And when you’re competing and trying to beat the best players in the world, unknowns are bad.”

Which is why Spieth tries hard to eliminate them, running through every possible scenario, even if only for a few seconds. On the fourth green Wednesday, he looked back down the fairway, almost as if there was a thought cloud above his head.

“He was thinking to himself: 'Is this a realistic place that I can miss it? Will it roll up into the rough or will it stay in this collection area?'” McCormick said later.

“That’s telling to the type of tactician that he is, and how he can deduce very quickly what is the likely miss and where do I need to practice from.”

This wasn’t a trait drilled into Spieth by his instructor. Heck, during Spieth’s junior days, McCormick traveled with his pupil to only a few of the big tournaments each year, such as the U.S. Junior and U.S. Amateur.

“It’s his own intelligence that he’s developed over time, just recognizing that I need to create a competitive advantage,” McCormick said.

Well, Spieth has certainly put that advantage to good use this season. In the first three majors, he is a combined 37 under par – 14 shots better than the next best player, Louis Oosthuizen.

Now comes the PGA, held on another venue where, on paper, he would seem to be at a disadvantage, having never played the course in competition. The last time Whistling Straits hosted a major, in 2010, Spieth was entering his senior year of high school.

He saw the course for the first time a few days before the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, in a 40-mph wind. This week, when he wasn’t taking money off Rickie and Phil, he was playing shots from the edge of the greens, where the bluegrass blends into the fescue and makes chipping difficult.

Said McCormick: “There are mistakes that you can prevent by making sure that you’re observant rather than playing practice rounds where maybe they’re more into the exercise of playing 18 holes than what can do I today that will save me a stroke tomorrow? That’s the attitude Jordan takes. Always has.”

And it’s one that’s proven quite successful.

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Monty grabs lead entering final round in season-opener

By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 4:00 am

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii – Colin Montgomerie shot a second straight 7-under 65 to take a two-shot lead into the final round of the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.

The 54-year-old Scot, a six-time winner on the over-50 tour, didn't miss a fairway on Friday and made five birdies on the back nine to reach 14 under at Hualalai.

Montgomerie has made 17 birdies through 36 holes and said he will have to continue cashing in on his opportunities.

''We know that I've got to score something similar to what I've done – 66, 67, something like that, at least,'' Montgomerie said. ''You know the competition out here is so strong that if you do play away from the pins, you'll get run over. It's tough, but hey, it's great.''

Full-field scores from the Mitsubishi Electric Championship

First-round co-leaders Gene Sauers and Jerry Kelly each shot 68 and were 12 under.

''I hit the ball really well. You know, all the putts that dropped yesterday didn't drop today,'' Kelly said. ''I was just short and burning edges. It was good putting again. They just didn't go in.''

David Toms was three shots back after a 66. Woody Austin, Mark Calcavecchia and Doug Garwood each shot 67 and were another shot behind.

Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, was six shots back after a 67.

The limited-field tournament on Hawaii's Big Island includes last season's winners, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.

''We've enjoyed ourselves thoroughly here,'' Montgomerie said. ''It's just a dramatic spot, isn't it? If you don't like this, well, I'm sorry, take a good look in the mirror, you know?''

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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.”

Full-field scores from the Career Builder Challenge

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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.