Weathering the weather: Wind, rain hammer Birkdale

By Ryan LavnerJuly 21, 2017, 8:51 pm

SOUTHPORT, England – It’s impossible to pinpoint the exact moment this 146th Open Championship truly began, but 11:56 a.m. local time is a pretty good guess.

Standing in the ninth fairway, the poor lad carrying the standard lost complete control in the whipping wind, and the name cards MCILROY, JOHNSON and SCHWARTZEL sailed into the rough.

Up ahead, Dustin Johnson didn’t even seem to notice. He was deep in discussions about club selection with his caddie/brother, Austin – a rare sight for a duo that often needs only a few seconds to pull the trigger. But there was DJ, waiting and waffling, until he eventually pulled a short iron and sent his second shot screaming toward a gorse bush right of the green. His ball drilled a journalist, Philip Reid of the Irish Times, squarely in the left cheek, leaving a sizeable welt.

Unfortunately, Reid fit right in Friday, as he and everybody else at Royal Birkdale got roughed up on a day that had a little bit of everything – cold, hellacious wind, torrential rain … and plenty of exasperation.

“An awful day out there,” huffed Kevin Na, who shot 75. “A good day to sit at home and watch a movie.”

After finishing his round, Matt Kuchar was downright giddy at the thought of watching the afternoon wave slog through what was supposed to be the most difficult conditions of the week. After all, he’d done well just to come in at 71, and he was more than happy to regale the press with stories of his wind-whipped day, when it felt like every hole, every shot, was into a stiff crosswind.

Most telling was the 162-yard 12th hole. Kuchar needed to start his tee shot way left of the green, over the spectators, and only in the last 20 yards of his ball’s flight did it finally slide right, into the middle of the green.

“There’s a whole lot of trouble to be had,” Kuchar said, “and trying to hit solid shots that the wind is going to affect the least is challenging. It’s really, really tricky trying to figure it out.”

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The scores reflected the players’ uncertainty:

• In the first 20 groups alone, 17 players shot 40 or worse for nine holes.

• The second-round scoring average was 74.00 – more than two shots higher than Thursday.

• There were only eight sub-par scores Friday, and just nine players under par after 36 holes.

• Zach Johnson shot 66 – and the two-time major champion said it was one of his top-5 rounds, ever.

“It would be a shame if it poured and blew a little harder later,” Johnson said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “It would just be a crying shame.”

Johnson got his wish, although the players (and caddies) in the afternoon wave faced a different set of challenges.  

Though he started in relatively benign conditions, Jordan Spieth eventually had more wardrobe changes than a Katy Perry concert. The first squall rolled through while Spieth was on the seventh tee, and caddie Michael Greller rummaged through a pile of assorted rain needs – extra towels, five gloves, mismatched black and blue rain gear – to keep his boss dry. (Little wonder the bag weighs about 40 pounds.) The second squall came on Spieth’s 10th hole, while he chipped in for par. Moments later, play was halted so officials could squeegee the waterlogged greens.

That blustery stretch brought to mind last year’s second round at Royal Troon, when Spieth and Co. caught the bad end of the draw and played through sheets of rain and 50-degree temperatures. But overall, Spieth was pleasantly surprised by what he faced Friday – especially after watching the early starters suffer.  

“It was tough watching,” he said. “It wasn’t a great feeling knowing we were coming into something harder than what we were watching. … But I didn’t think the conditions got as bad as when I was sitting on the couch this morning, as what we expected.”

And so, as he often does, Spieth was able to capitalize on a brief respite during the round. When the heavy rain turned to a mist and the flags were limp, he poured in a 35-footer (11), stiffed a tee shot (12) and then made eagle (15), after his 3-wood skipped along the soggy turf and rolled within 20 feet.

Following a second-round 69, Spieth was asked about his mindset and his nerves, holding another 36-hole major lead.

“Honestly,” he said, “right now, I’m just happy to be inside.”

Sounds like a typical day at The Open.

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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.

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Ortiz leads LAAC through 54; Niemann, Gana one back

By Nick MentaJanuary 22, 2018, 8:15 pm

Mexico's Alvaro Ortiz shot a 1-under 70 Monday to take the 54-hole lead at the Latin America Amateur Championship in Chile.

At 4 under for the week, he leads by one over over Argentina's Jaime Lopez Rivarola, Chile's Toto Gana and Joaquin Niemann, and Guatemala's Dnaiel Gurtner.

Ortiz is the younger brother of three-time winner Carlos. Alvaro, a senior at Arkansas, finished tied for third at the LAAC in 2016 and lost in a three-way playoff last year that included Niemann and Gana, the champion.

Ortiz shared the 54-hole lead with Gana last year and they will once again play in the final group on Tuesday, along with Gurtner, a redshirt junior at TCU.

“Literally, I've been thinking about [winning] all year long," Ortiz said Monday. "Yes, I am a very emotional player, but tomorrow I want to go out calm and with a lot of patience. I don't want the emotions to get the better of me. What I've learned this past year, especially in the tournaments I’ve played for my university, is that I have become more mature and that I have learned how to control myself on the inside on the golf course.”

In the group behind, Niemann is the top-ranked amateur in the world who is poised to turn professional, unless of course he walks away with the title.

“I feel a lot of motivation at the moment, especially because I am the only player in the field that shot seven under (during the second round), and I am actually just one shot off the lead," he said. "So I believe that tomorrow I can shoot another very low round."

Tuesday's winner will earn an invitation to this year's Masters and exemptions into the The Amateur Championship, the U.S. Amateur, sectional qualifying for the U.S. Open, and final qualifying for The Open.