#AskLav: Couples overtaking Azinger as Ryder Cup captain choice

By Ryan LavnerNovember 6, 2014, 8:25 pm

For whatever reason, I had never watched the RE/MAX World Long Drive Championship before Tuesday night. What an eye-opening experience. Who knew massive slices could elicit roars, not groans?

Jeff Flagg, a former minor-league baseball player, took home the WWE-style belt and $250,000 first-place prize. In a competition that celebrates unfathomably long drives, Flagg edged his opponent by the length of a gimme putt (13 inches).

I found the event … strangely mesmerizing. A few thoughts: 

• There is absolutely nothing more difficult for a right-hander than a stiff left-to-right wind – it’s Psych-Out Central.

• The vortex-inducing swings are fun, but I also would have LOVED to see the Long Drive Brigade attempt 30-yard pitch shots from a tight lie to a tucked pin over a bunker.

• Are lefties’ swings too pretty to qualify? 

• The perfect Tour player/long-driver hybrid is some combination of Gary Woodland (build), DJ (freakish flexibility), Tony Finau (speed), Tiger (desire) and BillyHo (brashness).

• If ever my mis-hits only go 330, just go ahead and punch me in the face.

• Playing in the group ahead of those guys would be utterly terrifying.

• Long drivers seem like golf’s version of NFL linebackers – they’re fearless dudes who push their muscle-bound bodies to the limit and likely won’t be able to walk in 30 years.

• The secret weapon at your next scramble tournament: Top-Flites! 

• The PGA Tour needs to host a REAL long-drive contest – not a silly peg-and-pound during the week of the PGA Championship, when there is no incentive to go full bore because of the risk of injury.

• Would Tiger’s body disintegrate if he swung the club at 142 mph?

Your mailbag questions: 

And you thought election season was over! My views on this have changed since Gleneagles. In the days immediately following the Ryder Cup, it seemed like Paul Azinger was the no-brainer choice. And why not? He’s the only successful U.S. Ryder Cup captain this century. He got his players genuinely invested in the process in ’08. And he had the (very) public support of Phil Mickelson, among others.

Now, though, it seems like Freddie is the favorite for the job, especially in light of his recent comments that the entire Ryder Cup team told him they want him to serve as captain for 2016. Couples told Golf Channel insider Tim Rosaforte that he’s not a “PGA of America guy” – whatever that means – but politics shouldn’t matter in this case. After royally botching the ’14 captaincy, the PGA should finally listen to the players’ advice and begin bridging the sizable gap between the association and the Tour. That means Freddie for 2016. No task force necessary. 

Well, the answer to that question depends on which segment of the golf population you’re addressing.  

Fans: The wraparound season is great for the die-hard, hard-core dimpleheads, those who want their golf fix every week and enjoy seeing the up-and-coming players and new storylines. But it’s not so good for the casual, fair-weather fans, the people who likely won’t tune in until the Tour heads to Florida in late February or Tiger, Phil and Rory are all in the same field.

TV/media: It’s great, because it gives scribes like me something to write and talk about all year long (thus keeping us employed!). But realistically, these C-level events don’t – and never will – compete with the NFL or playoff baseball or college football, which keeps Ben Martin and Co. out of the mainstream sports discussion. The ratings speak for themselves. 

Players: The fall portion of the wraparound season is great for the recent Web.com graduates or 2013-14 bubble boys who are trying to get a head start in the FedEx Cup. But save for this week’s WGC-HSBC Champions – where 40 of the top 50 in the world are teeing it up – it serves mostly as the de-facto offseason for the game’s elite. 

#AskLav: Do you expect a tougher course (Sheshan International) than we have seen the previous years? – Andrew Uldaho, via Instagram

Ankle-deep rough and narrower fairways mean scores won’t be nearly as low this year. (Graeme McDowell leads by two after an opening 67.) Since 2009, the winning score at the HSBC has been at least 17 under. DJ won last year’s event at 24 under, and two other players crossed the minus-20 mark. Three of the four winners here have shot all four rounds in the 60s on the par-72 course. Usually, it’s an all-out birdie-fest on a track that measures only 7,266 yards – short by today’s beefy standards. But it seems a 20-under winning score is unlikely this year after a few changes to the setup.

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Berger more than ready to rebound at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:54 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Daniel Berger hopes that this year he gets to be on the other end of a viral moment at the Travelers Championship.

Berger was a hard-luck runner-up last year at TPC River Highlands, a spectator as Jordan Spieth holed a bunker shot to defeat him in a playoff. It was the second straight year that the 25-year-old came up just short outside Hartford, as he carried a three-shot lead into the 2016 event before fading to a tie for fifth.

While he wasn’t lacking any motivation after last year’s close call, Berger got another dose last week at the U.S. Open when he joined Tony Finau as a surprise participant in the final group Sunday, only to shoot a 73 and drift to a T-6 finish.

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“It was one of the best experiences of my professional golf career so far. I feel like I’m going to be in such a better place next time I’m in that position, having felt those emotions and kind of gone through it,” Berger said. “There was a lot of reflection after that because I felt like I played good enough to get it done Sunday. I didn’t make as many putts as I wanted to, but I hit a lot of really good putts. And that’s really all you can do.”

Berger missed the cut earlier this month to end his quest for three straight titles in Memphis, but his otherwise consistent season has now included six top-20 finishes since January. After working his way into contention last week and still with a score to settle at TPC River Highlands, he’s eager to get back to work against another star-studded field.

“I think all these experiences you just learn from,” Berger said. “I think last week, having learned from that, I think that’s even going to make me a little better this week. So I’m excited to get going.”

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Rory tired of the near-misses, determined to close

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:46 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Rory McIlroy has returned to the Travelers Championship with an eye on bumping up his winning percentage.

McIlroy stormed from the back of the pack to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, but that remains his lone worldwide win since the 2016 Tour Championship. It speaks to McIlroy’s considerable ability and lofty expectations that, even with a number of other high finishes this season, he is left unsatisfied.

“I feel like I’ve had five realistic chances to win this year, and I’ve been able to close out one of them. That’s a bit disappointing, I guess,” McIlroy said. “But at least I’ve given myself five chances to win golf tournaments, which is much more than I did last year.”

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

The most memorable of McIlroy’s near-misses is likely the Masters, when he played alongside Patrick Reed in Sunday’s final group but struggled en route to a T-5 finish. But more frustrating in the Ulsterman’s eyes were his runner-up at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, when he led by two shots with eight holes to go, and a second-place showing behind Francesco Molinari at the BMW PGA Championship in May.

“There’s been some good golf in there,” he said. “I feel like I let Dubai and Wentworth get away a little bit.”

He’ll have a chance to rectify that trend this week at TPC River Highlands, where he finished T-17 last year in his tournament debut and liked the course and the tournament enough to keep it on his schedule. It comes on the heels of a missed cut at the U.S. Open, when he was 10 over through 11 holes and never got on track. McIlroy views that result as more of an aberration during a season in which he has had plenty of chances to contend on the weekend.

“I didn’t necessarily play that badly last week. I feel like if I play similarly this week, I might have a good chance to win,” McIlroy said. “I think when you play in conditions like that, it magnifies parts of your game that maybe don’t stack up quite as good as the rest of your game, and it magnified a couple of things for me that I worked on over the weekend.”

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Sunday run at Shinnecock gave Reed even more confidence

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:08 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While many big names are just coming around to the notion that the Travelers Championship is worth adding to the schedule, Patrick Reed has been making TPC River Highlands one of his favorite haunts for years.

Reed will make his seventh straight appearance outside Hartford, where he tied for fifth last year and was T-11 the year before that. He is eager to get back to the grind after a stressful week at the U.S. Open, both because of his past success here and because it will offer him a chance to build on a near-miss at Shinnecock Hills.

Reed started the final round three shots off the lead, but he quickly stormed toward the top of the leaderboard and became one of Brooks Koepka’s chief threats after birdies on five of his first seven holes. Reed couldn’t maintain the momentum in the middle of the round, carding three subsequent bogeys, and ultimately tied for fourth.

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It was a bittersweet result, but Reed is focusing on the positives after taking a couple days to reflect.

“If you would have told me that I had a chance to win coming down Sunday, I would have been pleased,” Reed said. “I felt like I just made too many careless mistakes towards the end, and because of that, you’re not going to win at any major making careless mistakes, especially on Sunday.”

Reed broke through for his first major title at the Masters, and he has now finished fourth or better in three straight majors dating back to a runner-up at the PGA last summer. With another chance to add to that record next month in Scotland, he hopes to carry the energy from last week’s close call into this week’s event on a course where he feels right at home.

“It just gives me confidence, more than anything,” Reed said. “Of course I would have loved to have closed it out and win, but it was a great week all in all, and there’s a lot of stuff I can take from it moving forward. That’s how I’m looking at it.”

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Koepka back to work, looking to add to trophy collection

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 8:53 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Days after ensuring the U.S. Open trophy remained in his possession for another year, Brooks Koepka went back to work.

Koepka flew home to Florida after successfully defending his title at Shinnecock Hills, celebrating the victory Monday night with Dustin Johnson, Paulina Gretzky, swing coach Claude Harmon III and a handful of close friends. But he didn’t fully unwind because of a decision to honor his commitment to the Travelers Championship, becoming the first player to tee it up the week after a U.S. Open win since Justin Rose in 2013.

Koepka withdrew from the Travelers pro-am, but he flew north to Connecticut on Wednesday and arrived to TPC River Highlands around 3 p.m., quickly heading to the driving range to get in a light practice session.

“It still hasn’t sunk in, to be honest with you,” Koepka said. “I’m still focused on this week. It was just like, ‘All right, if I can get through this week, then I’m going to be hanging with my buddies next week.’ I know then maybe it’ll sink in, and I’ll get to reflect on it a little bit more.”

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Koepka’s plans next week with friends in Boston meant this week’s event outside Hartford made logistical sense. But he was also motivated to play this week because, plainly, he hasn’t had that many playing opportunities this year after missing nearly four months with a wrist injury.

“I’ve had so many months at home being on the couch. I don’t need to spend any more time on the couch,” Koepka said. “As far as skipping, it never crossed my mind.”

Koepka’s legacy was undoubtedly bolstered by his win at Shinnecock, as he became the first player in nearly 30 years to successfully defend a U.S. Open title. But he has only one other PGA Tour win to his credit, that being the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open, and his goal for the rest of the season is to make 2018 his first year with multiple trophies on the mantle.

“If you’re out here for more than probably 15 events, it gives you a little better chance to win a couple times. Being on the sidelines isn’t fun,” Koepka said. “Keep doing what we’re doing and just try to win multiple times every year. I feel like I have the talent. I just never did it for whatever reason. Always felt like we ran into a buzzsaw. So just keep plugging away.”