A Week for Celebrating the Charms of Scottish Golf
I have long campaigned for Open Championship week to be an international holiday. Avid golfers think about Scotland every four minutes or so. But one week a year, links golf mania rises to the surface like a refreshing mountain spring. I just want to bathe in it.
Before you make a face and click over to Rich Lerner, hang on a sec. This will not be one of those irritating stories that bludgeons you with the idea that everything about golf over there is nirvana and everything about golf here is junk. Thats simply not the case. (And you can read Rich later.)
But I do love golf over there. Heres what I know about a country separated from us by a lot of water and a common game.
The Nose Definitely Knows: Turf has a smell, and its different over there. The first thing I do after hitting my first drive on a U.S. course is to suck in a deep breath of that fresh-cut grass aroma. In coastal Scotland, its a little more sour, but no less interesting, informed as it is by the salt air.
I stepped out of the Old Course Hotel one soft night and walked around back. From there, you can see the 17th fairway on your left, the entire 18th hole on your right, and the clubhouse that serves the New, Eden, and Jubilee courses dead ahead. I sucked in a deep, deep breath. The fellows in the passing four-ball gave me a look that told me they thought I was, to use the local vernacular, daft. To use a phrase they might have, I didna care.
Fly It, Bump It, Roll It, Hole It: Options abound, and that makes the golf fascinating. Not all the caddies will look at you goofy if you ask for a yardage. But Tigers right; a lot of times you can just dump the number and come up with something creative. Thats especially important when the breeze is up, which it usually is. Resist the temptation to loft a 9-iron 120 yards when the wind is crossing at freight-train speed. Hit low and bounce it up instead.
Feel the Need for Speed: Dave Seanor, my old editor at Golfweek, told me before my first trip to Scotland, Youll hit your ball, put your club in your bag, take two steps and hear balls landing behind you.
Its true. Everyone plays fast and cant conceive of doing it any other way. People dont hit into groups or do anything unsafe. But they dont waste time either. Makes it easier to get in two rounds a day, walking. And youll sleep like a baby.
The Caddies, Laddies: Sure, the sage, dour, old Scots are still out there. But most of the bagmen over there are gregarious locals aiming to please. As long as your golf manners are up to par, theyll do anything for you. And my advice is to accept whatever they do, be it a driving line or a putt read. These guys are almost all good players, and youre on a course they know as well as their house. Go ahead and have a beer with your caddie afterward too; youll be glad you did.
Which Brings Us to the Pubs: Theyre everywhere, and most of them are low on pretense and high on the cozy factor. Its more like sitting in someones living room than in a bar.
As for that problem finding ice for your drinks, or cold drinks in general, get over yourself. Its not that hot there anyway, and the local beers and ales actually tastes better just cool instead of cold. But in most towns now (including St. Andrews), there are convenience stores featuring (gasp) refrigerators full of Coke and other soft drinks. (One of these is Barrs Iron Bru. Having tasted it, I am proud to say theres no relation.)
The Zen Part: For you Golf in the Kingdom fans, dont go looking for Shivas Irons around every corner. So much of what you find on any trip depends on what you bring to it, and that includes managed expectations.
So if you dont hear a choir of angels or experience some epiphany when you play a course youve been dreaming about for years, dont worry. Find a way to have fun anyway. Something about a well-played bump-and-run shot tends to lighten any spirit.
That said, anything can happen. The scenery, weather, and companionship can coalesce into a permanent memory.
Out on the far end of the Old Course, on the ninth hole, the high bushes block the view of the town. All that was there when I played was the Eden River estuary behind me, the turf below my feet, and the misty sky above. It was unutterably quiet. There were no jets landing at the Royal Air Force base across the river in Leuchars. The hole probably looked much as it did 400 years before that day. The feeling of ancientness was palpable. I expected Old Tom Morris to step out of the bushes and shake my hand. Im not sure he didnt.
Close to that was simply the knowledge that at Carnoustie, I was walking where Ben Hogan walked.
Driving on the Left: Hey, youre on vacation. Go a little crazy. But for the first hour, watch the curb on the left. And please, for your own safety, keep moving in the roundabouts, those clockwise traffic circles found at intersections all over the country.
Single Malt Scotch: This is a family site, so I wont go into detail. But follow these simple instructions: 1. Sip. 2. Say Ahhhhh. 3. Relax.
The Dogs: Seaside Scots cherish their access to the beaches, even if theres a golf course between them and the sand. So youll see a lot of folks making their way down agreed-upon pathways to the North Sea. Many will have dogs. Trust me, if you approach them politely, introduce yourself, and declare your love for all things canine, they will smile and let you pet their dogs.
And who can get peeved about a pushed 3-iron when you can pet a dog?
Stunner: Inbee Park steps aside for Int. Crown
There was a big surprise this week when the LPGA announced the finalized lineups for the UL International Crown.
Rolex world No. 1 Inbee Park won’t be teeing it up for the host South Koreans Oct. 4-7 in Incheon.
She has withdrawn, saying she wanted another Korean to be able to experience the thrill of representing her country.
It’s a stunner given the importance the LPGA has placed on taking the UL International Crown to South Korea and its golf-crazy allegiance to the women’s game in the Crown’s first staging outside the United States.
Two-time major champion In Gee Chun will replace Park.
"It was my pleasure and honor to participate in the first UL International Crown in 2014 and at the 2016 Olympics, and I cannot describe in one word how amazing the atmosphere was to compete as a representative of my country,” Park said. “There are so many gifted and talented players in Korea, and I thought it would be great if one of the other players was given the chance to experience the 2018 UL International Crown.”
Chun, another immensely popular player in South Korea, was the third alternate, so to speak, with the world rankings used to field teams. Hye Jin Choi and Jin Young Ko were higher ranked than Chun but passed because of commitments made to competing in a Korean LPGA major that week. The other South Koreans who previously qualified are So Yeon Ryu, Sung Hyun Park and I.K. Kim.
Na: I can admit, 'I went through the yips'
CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Following his victory two weeks ago at A Military Tribute at the Greenbrier, Kevin Na said his second triumph on the PGA Tour was the most rewarding of his career.
Although he declined to go into details as to why the victory was so gratifying at The Greenbrier, as he completed his practice round on Tuesday at the Open Championship, Na shed some light on how difficult the last few years have been.
“I went through the yips. The whole world saw that. I told people, 'I can’t take the club back,'” Na said on Tuesday at Carnoustie. “People talked about it, 'He’s a slow player. Look at his routine.' I was admitting to the yips. I didn’t use the word ‘yip’ at the time. Nobody wants to use that word, but I’m over it now so I can use it. The whole world saw it.”
Na, who made headlines for his struggles to begin his backswing when he found himself in the lead at the 2012 Players Championship, said he asked other players who had gone through similar bouts with the game’s most dreaded ailment how they were able to get through it.
“It took time,” he said. “I forced myself a lot. I tried breathing. I tried a trigger. Some guys will have a forward press or the kick of the right knee. That was hard and the crap I got for it was not easy.”
The payoff, however, has steadily arrived this season. Na said he’d been confident with his game this season following a runner-up showing at the Genesis Open and a fourth-place finish at the Fort Worth Invitational, and he felt he was close to a breakthrough. But being able to finish a tournament like he did at The Greenbrier, where he won by five strokes, was particularly rewarding.
“All good now,” he smiled. “I knew I was good enough to win again, but until you do it sometimes you question yourself. It’s just the honest truth.”
Koepka still has chip on his chiseled shoulder
CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Brooks Koepka prepared more for this Open than last year's.
He picked up his clubs three times.
That’s three more than last summer, when the only shots he hit between the summer Opens was during a commercial shoot for Michelob Ultra at TPC Sawgrass. He still tied for sixth at The Open a month later.
This time, Koepka kept his commitment to play the Travelers, then hit balls three times between the final round in Hartford and this past Sunday, when he first arrived here at Carnoustie.
Not that he was concerned, of course.
Koepka’s been playing golf for nearly 20 years. He wasn’t about to forget to how to swing a club after a few weeks off.
“It was pretty much the same thing,” he said Tuesday, during his pre-tournament news conference. “I shared it with one of my best friends, my family, and it was pretty much the same routine. It was fun. We enjoyed it. But I’m excited to get back inside the ropes and start playing again. I think you need to enjoy it any time you win and really embrace it and think about what you’ve done.”
At Shinnecock Hills, Koepka became the first player in nearly 30 years to repeat as U.S. Open champion – a major title that helped him shed his undeserved reputation as just another 20-something talent who relies solely on his awesome power. In fact, he takes immense pride in his improved short game and putting inside 8 feet.
“I can take advantage of long golf courses,” he said, “but I enjoy plotting my way around probably - more than the bombers’ golf courses - where you’ve got to think, be cautious sometimes, and fire at the center of the greens. You’ve got to be very disciplined, and that’s the kind of golf I enjoy.”
Which is why Koepka once again fancies his chances here on the type of links that helped launch his career.
Koepka was out of options domestically after he failed to reach the final stage of Q-School in 2012. So he packed his bags and headed overseas, going on a tear on the European Challenge Tour (Europe’s equivalent of the Web.com circuit) and earning four titles, including one here in Scotland. That experience was the most fun and beneficial part of his career, when he learned to win, be self-sufficient and play in different conditions.
“There’s certain steps, and I embraced it,” Koepka said. “I think that’s where a lot of guys go wrong. You are where you are, and you have to make the best of it instead of just putting your head down and being like, 'Well, I should be on the PGA Tour.' Well, guess what? You’re not. So you’ve got to suck it up wherever you are, make the best of it, and keep plugging away and trying to win everything you can because, eventually, if you’re good enough, you will get out here.”
Koepka has proved that he’s plenty good enough, of course: He’s a combined 20 under in the majors since the beginning of 2017, the best of any player during that span. But he still searches long and hard for a chip to put on his chiseled shoulder.
In his presser after winning at Shinnecock, Koepka said that he sometimes feels disrespected and forgotten, at least compared to his more-ballyhooed peers. It didn’t necessarily bother him – he prefers to stay out of the spotlight anyway, eschewing a media tour after each of his Open titles – but it clearly tweaked him enough for him to admit it publicly.
That feeling didn’t subside after he went back to back at the Open, either. On U.S. Open Sunday, ESPN’s Instagram page didn’t showcase a victorious Koepka, but rather a video of New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. dunking a basketball.
“He’s like 6-foot-2. He’s got hops – we all know that – and he’s got hands. So what’s impressive about that?” Koepka said. “But I always try to find something where I feel like I’m the underdog and put that little chip on my shoulder. Even if you’re No. 1, you’ve got to find a way to keep going and keep that little chip on.
“I think I’ve done a good job of that. I need to continue doing that, because once you’re satisfied, you’re only going to go downhill. You try to find something to get better and better, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Now 28, Koepka has a goal of how many majors he’d like to win before his career is over, but he wasn’t about to share it.
Still, he was adamant about one thing: “Right now I’m focused on winning. That’s the only thing I’ve got in my mind. Second place just isn’t good enough. I finished second a lot, and I’m just tired of it. Once you win, it kind of propels you. You have this mindset where you just want to keep winning. It breeds confidence, but you want to have that feeling of gratification: I finally did this. How cool is this?”
So cool that Koepka can’t wait to win another one.
Despite results, Thomas loves links golf
CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Despite poor results in two previous Open Championships, Justin Thomas contends that he has what it takes to be a good links player. In fact, he believes that he is a good links player.
Two years ago at Royal Troon, Thomas shot 77 in the second round to tie for 53rd place. He was on the wrong side of the draw that week that essentially eliminated anyone from contention who played late Friday afternoon.
Last year at Royal Birkdale, Thomas made a quintuple-bogey 9 on the par-4 sixth hole in the second round and missed the cut by two shots.
“I feel like I’ve played more than two Opens, but I haven’t had any success here,” Thomas said Tuesday at Carnoustie. “I feel like I am a good links player, although I don’t really have the results to show.”
Although he didn’t mention it as a reason for success this week, Thomas is a much different player now than he was two years ago, having ascended to the No. 1 position in the world for a few weeks and now resting comfortably in the second spot.
He also believes a high golf IQ, and the ability to shape different shots into and with the wind are something that will help him in The Open over the next 20 years.
“I truly enjoy the creativity,” Thomas said. “It presents a lot of different strategies, how you want to play it, if you want to be aggressive, if you want to be conservative, if you want to attack some holes, wait on certain winds, whatever it might be. It definitely causes you to think.
“With it being as firm as it is, it definitely adds a whole other variable to it.”