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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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.

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Rahm (62) fires career low round

By Will GrayJanuary 19, 2018, 12:03 am

The scores were predictably low during the opening round of the CareerBuilder Challenge, where the top-ranked player in the field currently sits atop the standings. Here's how things look after the first day in Palm Springs as Jon Rahm is out to an early advantage:

Leaderboard: Jon Rahm (-10), Austin Cook (-9), Andrew Landry (-9), Jason Kokrak (-9), Brandon Harkins (-8), Martin Piller (-8), Aaron Wise (-8), Beau Hossler (-8)

What it means: Rahm is coming off a runner-up finish two weeks ago at Kapalua, and he picked up right where he left off with a 10-under 62 at La Quinta Country Club. It marked his lowest career round on the PGA Tour, and it gave him a one-shot lead heading to the Nicklaus Tournament Course. Cook is the only player within two shots of Rahm who has won already on Tour.

Round of the day: Rahm got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under, and he made it around La Quinta without dropping a shot. The 62 bettered his previous career low on Tour by two shots and it included an eagle on the par-5 fifth hole to go along with eight birdies.

Best of the rest: Cook was a winner earlier this season at the RSM Classic, and he's now in the mix for trophy No. 2 following a 9-under 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course. Like Rahm, he opened with a seven-hole stretch at 6 under and turned in a scorecard without a bogey. He'll now head to the more difficult Stadium Course for his second round.

Biggest disappointment: Patrick Reed blitzed the three-course rotation in Palm Springs en route to his first career Tour title back in 2014, but he's unlikely to repeat that feat after opening with a 2-over 74 on the Nicklaus Tournament course. Reed made only one birdie against three bogeys and was one of only 32 players in the 156-man field who failed to break par in the opening round.

Main storyline heading into Friday: Rahm deserves the spotlight, as he entered the week as one of the event's headliners and did nothing to lose that billing in the opening round. But the pack of contenders is sure to keep pace, while players like Phil Mickelson (-2) will look to put up a low score in order to build some momentum heading into the weekend.

Shot of the day: Wesley Bryan's 7-under 65 on the Nicklaus Tournament course was helped in large part by an eagle on the par-4 10th, where he holed a 54-degree wedge from 112 yards away. Bryan went on to birdie the next hole amid a five-hole stretch of 5 under play.

Quote of the day: "Shot 10 under par. There's not much more I can ask for." - Rahm

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Recent winner Cook contending at CareerBuilder

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 11:45 pm

Patton Kizzire is currently the only two-time PGA Tour winner this season, but Austin Cook hopes to join him this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge.

Cook won for the first time in November at the RSM Classic, a victory that catapaulted him from the Web.com Tour graduate category into an entirely new echelon. Cook notched a pair of top-25 finishes over the last two weeks in Hawaii, and he's again in the mix after an opening 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course left him one shot behind Jon Rahm.

"Today was great," Cook told reporters. "The conditions were perfect, but I always loved desert golf and I was just hitting the ball well and seeing good lines on the greens and hitting good putts."

Cook got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under highlighted by an eagle on the par-5 fourth hole. He briefly entertained the notion of a sub-60 round after birdies on Nos. 10 and 11 before closing with six pars and a birdie.

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Cook was a relative unknown before his victory at Sea Island earlier this season, but now with the flexibility and confidence afforded by a win he hopes to build on his burgeoning momentum this week in California.

"That was a big, proud moment for myself, knowing that I can finish a tournament," Cook said. "I think it was one of those things that I've proven to myself that now I can do it, and it just meant the world to me."

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Photo: Fleetwood's phone cover is picture of Bjorn

By Jason CrookJanuary 18, 2018, 11:40 pm

There's phone covers and then there are Phone Covers.

Paul Casey has himself a Phone Cover, showing off the protective case that features a picture of his wife at last year's U.S. Open.

Now, it appears, Tommy Fleetwood has joined the movement.

Fleetwood, last year's season-long Race to Dubai winner, has a phone cover with a picture of Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn on it. And not even a current Thomas Bjorn. This is a young Bjorn. A hair-having Bjorn.


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The 26-year-old is a virtual lock for this year's European Ryder Cup team, but just in case, he's carrying around a phone with a picture of the team captain attached to the back of it.

It's a bold strategy, Cotton. Let's see if it pays off for him.