Punch Shot: Major questions on eve of PGA

By Golf Channel DigitalAugust 12, 2015, 10:50 pm

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – The men’s final major of the season begins Thursday at Whistling Straits Golf Course. The on-site team answers some pressing questions on the eve of the 97th PGA Championship.

WHO WILL FINISH THE WEEK NO. 1: RORY MCILROY OR JORDAN SPIETH?

REX HOGGARD: When the dust settles on Sunday it will still be McIlroy atop the Official World Golf Ranking, but not by much. Of the litany of scenarios for Spieth to overtake McIlroy – ranging from a Spieth victory to McIlroy missing the cut – it will still be difficult for the exchange to occur, at least this week.

RANDALL MELL: Spieth. This is a less severe Chambers Bay moonscape, with really good greens. McIlroy’s rust is a factor.

RYAN LAVNER: Rory will stay No. 1, at least for a few more weeks. I expect both to play well, but neither to win, which would keep McIlroy in the top spot. Spieth isn’t a short hitter by any means, but he’ll be at a significant disadvantage on a course that is softer than anticipated. You have to figure that at least one of the big bombers – Bubba, DJ, J-Day, etc. – will power their way to victory.

MERCER BAGGS: Spieth. There are scenarios that could unfold to where he doesn't have to win and can still ascend to No. 1. If he wins, however, he dethrones Rory unless McIlroy finishes solo second. Since I think Spieth is going to win, therefore I think odds are he will be No. 1 come Sunday evening.


HOW WILL TIGER WOODS FARE: WIN, CONTEND, ALSO-RAN OR MISSED CUT?

HOGGARD: The progress Woods has talked about for so long finally arrived two weeks ago at the Quicken Loans National (T-18), but he continues to struggle to hit fairways - he’s 181st on the PGA Tour in driving accuracy - and that’s not a recipe for success at Whistling Straits. He will make the cut, just don’t expect him to contend.

MELL: Tiger misses the cut. The game isn’t really there, and the mental edge isn’t there, either. Woods sounds like he wouldn’t be overly upset if his season ends this week so he can regroup yet again.

LAVNER: He’s more likely to miss the cut than seriously contend. Woods has never played Whistling Straits when he was in good form – he was in the midst of swing changes at the PGAs here in 2004 and ’10, and now he’s a player who seems capable of stringing, at best, only a few good rounds together. He will have to hit driver more this week than at any point this season. Big red flag.

BAGGS: Don't use his T-18 at the Quicken Loans as a baramoter for this week. Look to his most recent major performances - a pair of badly missed cuts. It would be great to see Woods in the mix this weekend, even if it's just on Saturday. But we likely won't see him at all this weekend.


WHO IS A DARK-HORSE CONTENDER?

HOGGARD: Brooks Koepka won his first Tour event earlier this year in Phoenix and has been trending in the right direction recently, with top-10 finishes in three of his last five events. But more importantly, he hits the ball a mile which is required at Whistling Straits.

MELL: Kevin Kisner. He’s knocking on the door with three second-place finishes this season, two of those in playoff losses. His runner-up finish at The Players showed he can handle playing against the big stars on the big stages.

LAVNER: If a 2015 PGA Tour winner can be considered a darkhorse, I’m taking Brooks Koepka. He’s coming off a T-6 at Firestone, a venue that has proven to be a strong indicator of PGA success. More reasons to dig him this week: He’s made the cut in all three majors this season (including a top-10 at St. Andrews) and Whistling Straits should fit his smash-mouth game.

BAGGS: Justin Thomas. He has to be brimming with confidence. In addition to teaming with Spieth to beat Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler in a Tuesday money match, Thomas has a pair of top-5 finishes in his last two Tour starts.


WHAT IS THE BEST SUNDAY STORYLINE?

HOGGARD: Sports is at its best during true rivalries and it would be hard to imagine a better time for Spieth and McIlroy to officially kick off their rivalry than the PGA Championship. The game’s two young stars going head-to-head on a major Sunday with the top spot in the world ranking hanging in the balance, not sure it could get much better than that.

MELL: Steve Stricker. If he gets some putts to fall early, he’ll ignite the land of bubbling cheese pits and malt-and-barley lakes. The Wisconsin boy is striking the ball confidently. If he wins, it’s a fairy-tale story, the homegrown talent winning his first major in what he believed could be his last start in a major.

LAVNER: Spieth holds off McIlroy and denies Dustin Johnson again down the stretch to win major No. 3, but McIlroy stays No. 1 because he finishes second in his return from injury. Too much to ask? OK, probably. Our only hope should be that this major lives up to last year’s PGA, with plenty of star power and birdies during the final round.

BAGGS: Sheboygan Shocker: Woods wins 15th major. But that ain't gonna happen. What is more likely to happen is Spieth winning his third major of the season. And barring a Tiger miracle, that would be the best storyline this week. It would be even better if it was Spieth vs. McIlroy in the final group on Sunday. But we'll probably have to settle for their early-round showdown. Why would a Spieth win be better than a McIlroy win? Because an individual sport needs a single, dominant figure. That's what Spieth would be with a win.

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Watch: Na plays backwards flop and practices lefty

By Grill Room TeamJuly 18, 2018, 3:16 pm

Fresh off his victory at The Greenbrier, Kevin Na is taking a quite-literally-backwards approach to his Open prep.

Caddie Kenny Harms has been sharing videos of Na's early work at Carnoustie.

This one shows Na standing in a bunker and playing a flop shot over his own head (as opposed to someone else's):

While it's unlikely he'll have a need for that exact shot this week, it's far more likely a player may have to think about turning his club over and playing from the wrong side of the ball, like so:

Na has made 4 of 6 cuts at The Open and will look to improve on his best career finish, currently a T-22 in 2016 at Royal Troon.

Getty Images

McIlroy growing 'comfortable' on Open courses

By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 1:45 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – For a player who once complained about the vagaries of links golf, Rory McIlroy enters this Open with a dazzling record in the sport’s oldest championship.

Though he missed the 2015 event because of an ankle injury, McIlroy has now posted three consecutive top-5 finishes in the year’s third major.

“It’s surprising a little bit that my best form in major championships has been this tournament,” he said Wednesday, “but at the same time I’ve grown up these courses, and I’m comfortable on them. I think going to courses on The Open rota that I’ve played quite a lot. I think that helps. You have a comfort level with the golf course, and you’ve built up enough experience to know where to hit and where not to hit it.”


Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


McIlroy still regrets what happened in 2015, when he “did something slightly silly” and injured his ankle while playing soccer a few weeks before the event. That came a year after he triumphed at Royal Liverpool.

“Since 2010, I couldn’t wait to play The Open at St. Andrews,” he said. “I thought that was one of my best chances to win a major.”

He tied for 42nd at Carnoustie in 2007, earning low-amateur honors.  

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Height of irony: Phil putts in front of 'rules' sign

By Grill Room TeamJuly 18, 2018, 1:36 pm

A picture is worth 1,000 words and potentially two strokes for playing a moving ball under Rule 14-5 but not Rule 1-2.

Phil Mickelson has been having some fun during his Open prep at Carnoustie hitting flop shots over human beings, but the irony of this photo below is too obvious to go over anyone's head.

Mickelson also tried tapping down fescue two weeks ago at The Greenbrier, incurring another two-shot penalty.

And so we're left to wonder about what Phil asked himself back at Shinnecock Hills: "The real question is, ‘What am I going to do next?’”

Getty Images

Rory looking for that carefree inner-child

By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 1:28 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Eleven years later, Rory McIlroy cringes at the photo: the yellow sweater with the deep V-neck, the chubby cheeks and the messy mop that curled under his cap.

“You live and you learn,” he said Wednesday, offering a wry smile.

The last time McIlroy played at a Carnoustie Open, in 2007, he earned the Silver Medal as the low amateur. He tied for 42nd, but the final result had mattered little. Grateful just to have a spot in the field, courtesy of his European Amateur title, he bounced along the fairways, soaking up every moment, and lingered behind the 18th green as one of his local heroes, Padraig Harrington, battled one of his favorite players, Sergio Garcia. Waiting for the trophy presentation, he passed the time playing with Padraig’s young son, Paddy. On Wednesday, McIlroy spotted Paddy, now 15, walking around Carnoustie with his three-time-major-winning father.

“He’s massive now – he towers over me,” he said. “It’s so funny thinking back on that day.”

But it’s also instructive. If there’s a lesson to be learned from ’07, it’s how carefree McIlroy approached and played that week. He was reminded again of that untroubled attitude while playing a practice round here with 23-year-old Jon Rahm, who stepped onto each tee, unsheathed his driver and bombed away with little regard for the wind or the bounce or the fescue. McIlroy smiled, because he remembers a time, not too long ago, that he’d attack a course with similar reckless abandon.


Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


“I just think, as you get older, you get a little more cautious in life,” said McIlroy, 29. “I think it’s only natural. There’s something nice about being young and being oblivious to some stuff. The more I can get into that mindset, the better I’ll play golf.”

And so on the eve of this Open, as he approaches the four-year anniversary of his last major title, McIlroy finds himself searching for a way to channel that happy-go-lucky 18-year-old who was about to take the world by storm, to tap into the easygoing excellence that once defined his dominance.

It’s been a year since he first hinted at what he’s been missing. Last year’s Open at Royal Birkdale was the final event of his long run with caddie J.P. Fitzgerald. The chief reason for the split, he said, had nothing to do with some of the questionable on-course decisions, but rather a desire to take ownership of him game, to be freed up alongside one of his best friends, Harry Diamond.

That partnership has produced only one victory so far, and over the past few months, McIlroy has at times looked unsettled between the ropes. It’s difficult to compute, how someone with seemingly so much – a résumé with four majors, a robust bank account, a beautiful wife – can also appear disinterested and unmotivated.

“I think sometimes I need to get back to that attitude where I play carefree and just happy to be here,” he said. “A golf tournament is where I feel the most comfortable. It’s where I feel like I can 100 percent be myself and express myself. Sometimes the pressure that’s put on the top guys to perform at such a level every week, it starts to weigh on you a little bit. The more I can be like that kid, the better.”

It’s a decidedly different landscape from when the erstwhile Boy Wonder last won a major, in summer 2014. Jordan Spieth had won just a single Tour event, not three majors. Dustin Johnson wasn’t world No. 1 but merely a tantalizing tease, a long-hitting, fast-living physical freak who was just beginning a six-month break to address "personal challenges." Two-time U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka hadn’t even started playing in the States.  

McIlroy’s greatest asset, both then and now, was his driving – he put on clinics at Congressional and Kiawah, Hoylake and Valhalla. He was a mainstay at or near the top of the strokes gained: tee to green rankings, but over the past few years, because of better technology, fitness and coaching, the gap between him and the rest of the field has shrunk.

“I think at this stage players have caught up,” Harrington said. “There’s many players who drive the ball comparable and have certainly eaten into that advantage. Rory is well on pace to get into double digits with majors, but it has got harder. There’s no doubt there’s more players out there who are capable of having a big week and a big game for a major. It makes it tough.”

It’s not as though McIlroy hasn’t had opportunities to add to his major haul; they’ve just been less frequent and against stronger competition. In the 13 majors since he last won, he’s either finished in the top 10 or missed the cut in 11 of them. This year, he played in the final group at the Masters, and was on the verge of completing the career Grand Slam, before a soul-crushing 74 on the last day. His U.S. Open bid was over after nine holes, after an opening 80 and a missed cut during which he declined to speak to reporters after both frustrating rounds.

“I’m trying,” he said Wednesday. “I’m trying my best every time I tee it up, and it just hasn’t happened.”

A year after saying that majors are the only events that will define the rest of his career, he recently shrugged off the doom and gloom surrounding his Grand Slam drought: “It doesn’t keep me up at night, thinking, If I never won another major, I can’t live with myself.”

Eleven years ago, McIlroy never would have troubled himself with such trivial questions about his legacy. But perhaps a return to Carnoustie, to where his major career started, is just what he needs to unlock his greatness once again.