Weight of Masters meltdown finally lifted

By Ryan LavnerJuly 23, 2017, 8:43 pm

SOUTHPORT, England – It couldn’t happen, shouldn’t happen, wouldn’t happen.

Not again.

Not this soon.

And so, in the midst of another major collapse, and with his reputation as a shutdown closer on the line, Jordan Spieth took 29 minutes to play the 13th hole Sunday at Royal Birkdale.

It was worth every surreal second.  

In what became one of the most bizarre, gutsy and exhilarating stretches in major-championship history, Spieth made an improbable bogey from the driving range, then ripped off three birdies and an eagle late to snatch the claret jug from Matt Kuchar and capture the 146th Open Championship.

“Today took as much out of me as any day I’ve ever played,” Spieth said afterward.

Spieth has long resisted historical comparisons, but he’s also a student of the game and is acutely aware of where his march on history now stands. Four days shy of his 24th birthday, he became the second-youngest player in the modern era to win three majors, behind Jack Nicklaus and ahead of Tiger Woods. Spieth can complete the career Grand Slam next month at Quail Hollow.

“To be in that company,” he said, “no doubt, is absolutely incredible.”

His epic comeback took on an even greater significance given his recent history.  

Four-hundred-seventy days ago, halfway around the world, Spieth authored one of the biggest collapses in golf history, coughing up a five-shot lead with nine holes to play in the 2016 Masters. The past 15 months have been spent defending, rationalizing and then ultimately accepting the worst day of his professional life, and for a while Sunday it appeared as though there would be another meltdown to sort through.

That seemed inconceivable at the start of the day.

Spieth had looked unflappable for three rounds, keeping calm and pouring in putts through wind gusts and rain squalls, taking another lead into the final round of a major.

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If the memories of the Masters were fresh, he betrayed no apprehension Saturday night. He thoughtfully answered a reporter’s question – “It was a humbling experience that I thought at the time could serve me well going forward” – and then retired to his rental house, which he shared with fellow frat brothers Rickie Fowler, Zach Johnson, Jimmy Walker and Justin Thomas. They played gin and snooker deep into the night, making no mention of the day ahead. “It was pretty chill,” Walker said. 

As is his routine on major Sundays, Spieth arrived at Birkdale 2 ½ hours before his tee time. With his swing coach Cameron McCormick squatting behind him, Spieth stroked 5-footers on an alignment track for a half-hour and then headed in for lunch, a foam roller popping out of the neon green backpack slung over his shoulder.

It wasn’t long before he was tied up in knots.

Staked to a three-shot lead, Spieth’s advantage disappeared by the time he walked off the fourth green. Cue the Augusta flashbacks.

“All of a sudden it creeps in your head,” he said. “I was so confident, and then all of a sudden, the wheels come off everything. So how do we get back on track to salvage this round and just give yourself a chance at the end?”

Now tied, and sensing his boss needed to refocus, Spieth’s caddie, Michael Greller, stopped him on the seventh tee and delivered a pep talk.

“Do you remember that group you were with in Cabo?” Greller asked, referring to Spieth’s July Fourth vacation, when he headed south of the border with Michael Jordan, Michael Phelps and other A-list celebrities. “You belong in that group. You’re that caliber of an athlete. But I need you to believe that right now because you’re in a great position in this tournament.”   

It sure didn't seem like it on the 13th hole.

Playing in a light rain, Spieth’s drive sailed about a hundred yards right, over a sand dune, off the noggin of a spectator, and into an unplayable lie. Back on the tee, his reaction was eerily similar to when he rinsed the two shots on the 12th hole at Augusta: Hands on his head. Mouth agape. Eyes filled with anguish.

“Oh boy,” Spieth said. “This could be 6.”

Sorting through his options, he headed to the range, where a stunned Haotong Li was warming up, preparing for a potential playoff. 

Twirling a 3-wood in his hand, weaving between the Titleist and Callaway trailers, creating a van de Veldian spectacle, Spieth was granted line-of-sight relief from the trucks as Greller, lugging a 40-pound bag, trudged back up the dunes to offer a reference point. 

“I certainly didn’t have any numbers from the right side of the range,” Greller said, smirking.

Indeed, Spieth was so far off-line, not even the Pythagorean theorem could have helped. He guessed he had 270 yards to the front and wanted to hit 3-wood; Greller insisted it was closer to 230 yards and suggested 3-iron. As Kuchar waited patiently during the 22-minute ordeal, Spieth, with 3-iron in hand, put his ball back in play, then perfectly nipped his pitch shot from a tight, downhill lie and rolled in the 8-footer for an all-world bogey.

Spieth fell one behind but didn't panic. “That’s a momentum shift right there,” Greller said.

And it shifted the outcome of The Open.

What followed was a 6-iron laser on 14 for birdie.

A 50-foot eagle on 15, as he pointed at the cup and told Greller to “go get that.”

A 30-footer for birdie on 16.

And then, finally, an 8-footer on 17, an instantly legendary stretch that gave him a final-round 69 and a three-shot victory at 12-under 268.

“That’s the stuff legends are made of,” McCormick said. “When you’re pushed back to the wall and you’re in a corner and you keep punching … that just shows his tenacity and resilience and the heart that he has.” 

By the time Kuchar walked off the 18th green, his perma-smile was gone, his eyes were glazed over, and his young son was in tears.

“It’s hard to explain,” said Kuchar, who shot 69. “It’s crushing. It hurts.”

Yet for Spieth, it’s a reputation-saving turnaround. Even though he’d closed out eight of his past nine 54-hole leads on the PGA Tour, the one occasion he didn’t still haunted him.

“He’s heard a lot since the 2016 Masters,” Greller said, turning emotional, “and I’m sure there was somewhere in there some doubts crept in. It was just cool to see him with his back against the wall more than maybe even 12 at Augusta and see what he did. It just shows his character and his grit.”

Personally, Greller thought the 2015 Open was more disappointing than the Masters. Two years ago, on the verge of capturing the first three legs of the Grand Slam, Spieth had bogeyed the 71st hole at St. Andrews and missed the playoff by a shot. Instead of sulking, though, he waited behind the final green to congratulate Zach Johnson, then rode home on the charter flight with him, guzzling wine, cheap beer and champagne out of the claret jug, unafraid of any Open jinx.

Now, somehow, Spieth has a claret jug of his own, and another flight to catch. After the past 15 months, after a comeback for the ages, the bubbly will taste even sweeter. 

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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.