Stars Converge at Augusta National

By Associated PressApril 3, 2005, 4:00 pm
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- If this is a golden era, then it starts with a green jacket.
Everyone has been pointing to the Masters since the first day of the new year, when it became obvious that golf was loaded with talent at the top, muddled only by debate over how many players belonged in the conversation.
The Big Three?
Ernie Els
Ernie Els is the only member of the 'Big Four' who hasn't won the Masters.
That would be Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods and Ernie Els -- in that order, at the moment -- because each has won at least three major championships and because they are so tightly bunched atop the world ranking that any of them could go to No. 1 with a victory at Augusta National.
Phil Mickelson makes it the Big Four, and it's tough to leave him out of the mix.
The defending Masters champion came within five shots of a chance to win the Grand Slam last year. And while he tapered off at the end of the season, Lefty again came out firing on the West Coast by winning back-to-back weeks with audacious scores -- a 60 in Phoenix and a course-record 62 at Spyglass Hill, one of the toughest tracks on tour.
Some would argue for a Big Five to include U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen, the stoic South African who doesn't make a peep except when he's beating the best players with an unflappable game. Whatever the number, they indeed are big. And they all converge on Augusta National this week for the 69th Masters Tournament, which has all the trappings of a free-for-all on a stage that rarely lacks for drama.
'I can't remember a time when golf was in this position, where you've got that many guys right at the top of the world rankings and playing consistently well going into the big start of the year,' Thomas Bjorn said. 'It's good fun to watch. It's interesting for the game. It's healthy for the game.'
Adding to the anticipation is that Augusta National, built for power with changes to the course over the last couple of years, has a habit of making sure the cream rises.
Mickelson had to birdie five of the least seven holes last year to beat Els. Woods won his fourth straight major in 2001 at Augusta National by holding off Mickelson and David Duval. Thirty years ago, it was Jack Nicklaus making that 40-foot putt on the 16th to beat Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf.
'It reminds me of the glory days of the '70s when we had almost 12 players that were just guns,' Miller said. 'Guys were in their prime, and they were tough down the stretch. We really haven't had that on the world golf scene. You've got so many top stars now. It's almost impossible to pick who's going to be the gun. It's an exciting time.'
Every era has its conglomerate of stars, so the concept of a Big Three (or any number) is nothing new.
Harry Vardon, James Braid and J.H. Taylor were the original Great Triumvirate in golf, and the United States produced its own cast of characters with Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson in the 1940s and 1950s. Then came the original 'Big Three' with Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. And for international flavor, there was Nick Faldo, Nick Price and Greg Norman ominating the early part of the 1990s.
The common thread was a green jacket, at least as long as Augusta National has been around.
Hogan or Snead won the Masters five out of six times during the early 1950s. Palmer, Nicklaus and Player combined to win seven straight green jackets through 1966. Faldo won three Masters between 1989 and 1996, culminating with his shocking comeback against Norman.
Singh, Woods and Mickelson have won four of the last five Masters. The exception was Mike Weir, one of several players (Padraig Harrington, David Toms, Sergio Garcia, Adam Scott) who are on the cusp of joining the elite in golf. Even so, the top five players stand out.
'Those guys are playing at a different level than most of us,' Scott said.
For the longest time, Woods had that distinction all to himself. He won three green jackets in the first six Masters he played as a pro, eight majors by the time he was 26. But the former No. 1 player comes to Augusta National without a major in his last 10 tries, matching the longest drought of his career.
Woods had just begun to change his swing last year when he tied for 22nd at 2-over 290, 11 shots behind the winner. All three of those figures were career worsts at Augusta National.
No one knows what to expect from Woods this time around. He has won twice, including a wonderful duel at Doral when he rallied to beat Mickelson in the final round, but he has been wild with his driver and errant with his putter in the two weeks coming into the Masters.
Most importantly, he now has competition. Nicklaus, whose 18 majors represent the record Woods is chasing, saw this coming even when it looked as though Woods had no rival.
'He's certainly going to have increased competition that he hasn't had in past years, that he seems to have more of now,' Nicklaus said recently. 'You heard me a couple of years ago. A lot of competition hadn't even shown up yet -- young kids coming out, or guys playing against him who will raise the level of their golf game or disappear.
'I think Tiger by far is still the most talented,' he said. 'His future depends on his desire.'
Singh has won nine times since the last Masters, ending Woods' five-year reign at No. 1 in the world. His only victory this season was the Sony Open, where he birdied the final hole at Waialae to beat Els by one shot.
Els picked up two victories in the Middle East, at Dubai and Qatar, although his global travels make some wonder if he has given himself enough rest coming to the place that now haunts him.
The South African had one arm in the green jacket last year, closing with two eagles and a 67 that looked like it might be enough until Mickelson hit the putt heard 'round the world on the 18th to beat him.
The rest of the year wasn't much better for the Big Easy. He shot 80 in the final group at the U.S. Open, lost in a four-hole playoff at the British Open to Todd Hamilton, and bogeyed the last hole of the PGA Championship to finish one shot out of another playoff.
'I'm a different guy from where I was last August,' Els said. 'As an athlete, you just pull yourself up. Who knows? You either crash, or you celebrate.'
Els remembers what it was like when he was No. 1 in the late 1990s, after winning his second U.S. Open. Woods had just begun to blossom. Davis Love III appeared to be in full stride. Mickelson was contending in majors and dazzling fans with his short game.
But, as he surveys the landscape now, Els says there is no comparison.
'I'm a different player than I was back then,' he said. 'I think we're all different now. I think we're all playing at a level that we weren't at in those days. Our records speak for themselves. I've won over 50 tournaments now, and Vijay has won over 30. We've got more experience, we've done different things.
'Maybe it's stronger now than it was back in the late '90s.'
It might be the strongest it has been in some 30 years, when the top stars brought their game to Augusta National and tried to settle the score at the Masters.
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    Tiger Tracker: 147th Open Championship

    By Tiger TrackerJuly 20, 2018, 10:15 am

    Following an even-par 71 in the first round of the 147th Open Championship, Tiger Woods looks to make a move on Day 2 at Carnoustie.

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    McIlroy responds to Harmon's 'robot' criticism

    By Mercer BaggsJuly 20, 2018, 6:53 am

    CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Rory McIlroy said during his pre-championship news conference that he wanted to play more "carefree" – citing Jon Rahm’s approach now and the way McIlroy played in his younger days.

    McIlroy got off to a good start Thursday at Carnoustie, shooting 2-under 69, good for a share of eighth place.

    But while McIlroy admits to wanting to be a little less structured on the course, he took offense to comments made by swing coach Butch Harmon during a Sky Sports telecast.

    Said Harmon:

    “Rory had this spell when he wasn’t putting good and hitting the ball good, and he got so wrapped up in how he was going to do it he forgot how to do it.

    Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

    Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

    “He is one of the best players the game has ever seen. If he would just go back to being a kid and playing the way he won these championships and play your game, don’t have any fear or robotic thoughts. Just play golf. Just go do it.

    “This is a young kid who’s still one of the best players in the world. He needs to understand that. Forget about your brand and your endorsement contracts. Forget about all that. Just go back to having fun playing golf. I still think he is one of the best in the world and can be No.1 again if he just lets himself do it.”

    McIlroy, who has never worked with Harmon, responded to the comments when asked about them following his opening round.

    “Look, I like Butch. Definitely, I would say I'm on the opposite end of the spectrum than someone that's mechanical and someone that's – you know, it's easy to make comments when you don't know what's happening,” McIlroy said. “I haven't spoken to Butch in a long time. He doesn't know what I'm working on in my swing. He doesn't know what's in my head. So it's easy to make comments and easy to speculate. But unless you actually know what's happening, I just really don't take any notice of it.”

    McIlroy second round at The Open began at 2:52 a.m. ET.

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    How The Open cut line is determined

    By Golf Channel DigitalJuly 20, 2018, 5:57 am

    Scores on Day 1 of the 147th Open Championship ranged from 5-under 66 to 11-over 82.

    The field of 156 players will be cut nearly in half for weekend play at Carnoustie. Here’s how the cut line works in the season’s third major championship:

    Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

    Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

    • After 36 holes, the low 70 players and ties will advance to compete in the final two rounds. Anyone finishing worse than that will get the boot. Only those making the cut earn official money from the $10.5 million purse.

    • There is no 10-shot rule. That rule means anyone within 10 shots of the lead after two rounds, regardless of where they stand in the championship, make the cut. It’s just a flat top 70 finishers and ties.

    • There is only a single cut at The Open. PGA Tour events employ an MDF (Made cut Did not Finish) rule, which narrows the field after the third round if more than 78 players make the cut. That is not used at this major.

    The projected cut line after the first round this week was 1 over par, which included 71 players tied for 50th or better.

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    The Open 101: A guide to the year's third major

    By Golf Channel DigitalJuly 20, 2018, 5:30 am

    Take a look at some answers to frequently asked questions about The Open:

    What's all this "The Open" stuff? I thought it was the British Open.

    What you call it has historically depended on where you were. If you were in the U.S., you called it the British Open, just as Europeans refer to the PGA Championship as the U.S. PGA. Outside the U.S. it generally has been referred to as The Open Championship. The preferred name of the organizers is The Open.

    How old is it?

    It's the oldest golf championship, dating back to 1860.

    Where is it played?

    There is a rotation – or "rota" – of courses used. Currently there are 10: Royal Birkdale, Royal St. George's, Royal Liverpool and Royal Lytham and St. Annes, all in England; Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland and St. Andrews, Carnoustie, Royal Troon, Turnberry and Muirfield, all in Scotland. Muirfield was removed from the rota in 2016 when members voted against allowing female members, but when the vote was reversed in 2017 it was allowed back in.

    Where will it be played this year?

    At Carnoustie, which is located on the south-eastern shore of Scotland.

    Who has won The Open on that course?

    Going back to the first time Carnoustie hosted, in 1931, winners there have been Tommy Armour, Henry Cotton (1937), Ben Hogan (1953), Gary Player (1968), Tom Watson (1975), Paul Lawrie (1999), Padraig Harrington (2007).

    Wasn't that the year Hogan nearly won the Slam?

    Yep. He had won the Masters and U.S. Open that season, then traveled to Carnoustie and won that as well. It was the only time he ever played The Open. He was unable to play the PGA Championship that season because the dates conflicted with those of The Open.

    Jean Van de Velde's name should be on that list, right?

    This is true. He had a three-shot lead on the final hole in 1999 and made triple bogey. He lost in a playoff to Lawrie, which also included Justin Leonard.

    Who has won this event the most?

    Harry Vardon, who was from the Channel Island of Jersey, won a record six times between 1896 and 1914. Australian Peter Thomson, American Watson, Scot James Braid and Englishman J.H. Taylor each won five times.

    What about the Morrises?

    Tom Sr. won four times between 1861 and 1867. His son, Tom Jr., also won four times, between 1868 and 1872.

    Have players from any particular country dominated?

    In the early days, Scots won the first 29 Opens – not a shocker since they were all played at one of three Scottish courses, Prestwick, St. Andrews and Musselburgh. In the current era, going back to 1999 (we'll explain why that year in a minute), the scoreboard is United States, nine wins; South Africa, three wins; Ireland, two wins; Northern Ireland, two wins; and Sweden, one win. The only Scot to win in that period was Lawrie, who took advantage of one of the biggest collapses in golf history.

    Who is this year's defending champion?

    That would be American Jordan Spieth, who survived an adventerous final round to defeat Matt Kuchar by three strokes and earn the third leg of the career Grand Slam.

    What is the trophy called?

    The claret jug. It's official name is the Golf Champion Trophy, but you rarely hear that used. The claret jug replaced the original Challenge Belt in 1872. The winner of the claret jug gets to keep it for a year, then must return it (each winner gets a replica to keep).

    Which Opens have been the most memorable?

    Well, there was Palmer in 1961and '62; Van de Velde's collapse in 1999; Hogan's win in 1953; Tiger Woods' eight-shot domination of the 2000 Open at St. Andrews; Watson almost winning at age 59 in 2009; Doug Sanders missing what would have been a winning 3-foot putt at St. Andrews in 1970; Tony Jacklin becoming the first Briton to win the championship in 18 years; and, of course, the Duel in the Sun at Turnberry in 1977, in which Watson and Jack Nicklaus dueled head-to-head over the final 36 holes, Watson winning by shooting 65-65 to Nicklaus' 65-66.

    When I watch this tournament on TV, I hear lots of unfamiliar terms, like "gorse" and "whin" and "burn." What do these terms mean?

    Gorse is a prickly shrub, which sometimes is referred to as whin. Heather is also a shrub. What the scots call a burn, would also be considered a creek or stream.