Punch Shot: Three big questions for the 144th Open

By Golf Channel DigitalJuly 15, 2015, 2:45 pm

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Where will Jordan Spieth finish? What are the expectations for Tiger Woods? Set the top three betting favorites aside (Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson), who is the best bet to contend? Our team at the Old Course debates these three topics on the eve of the 144th Open Championship.


JOE POSNANSKI: I think he contends. There are many reasons to believe he won’t – lack of experience, the intense pressure of the Grand Slam, unfamiliarity with St. Andrews, weather issues – but he seems somewhat immune to such things. His confidence level is sky high, his game is complete enough, and the Open does tend to reward those who are adept at the 15-20-foot putts. Plus, it would be such a great story. I think he’s in contention on Sunday.

REX HOGGARD: As impressive as Spieth has been this season, history is not on his side at St. Andrews. Of the five players who have won the Masters and U.S. Open in the same year, only Ben Hogan in 1953 managed to add an Open Championship trophy to the resume during the same calendar. Spieth will play well and likely finish in the top 25, but he won’t win.

RYAN LAVNER: Well, he’ll contend, because that’s what Spieth does – he’s finished outside the top 20 only twice since February. He won’t be fazed by the pressure of trying to capture the third leg of the Grand Slam. He won’t be unprepared. He won’t get frazzled by the changing winds or the unpredictable weather. All this kid does is stick to his game plan and hole more 20-foot putts than anyone in the game. (No, seriously, he makes nearly TWENTY-NINE percent of his attempts.) He’ll be squarely in the mix come Sunday, in line for even more history, because he hasn’t given me any reason to think otherwise. But the odds are still against him to win.

BAILEY MOSIER: Spieth winning his third consecutive major would be as fairytale-like as the town hosting this week’s Open Championship. It would be too good to be true. Then again, I’ve always believed you can live happily ever after. The man has already proven four times this season that his “winning formula” works, and with a forecast that calls for rain and 40 mph gusts for two of the four rounds, this week’s champion will have to combine skill, luck and patience. Spieth has heaps of the first and last, and after watching DJ three-putt from 13 feet on Sunday at the U.S. Open, I’m convinced Spieth’s got plenty of the second ingredient as well. 

JAY COFFIN: Spieth is playing too well not to contend. Sure, more trips around the Old Course would prove valuable but, simply, the man always finds a way to get the ball in the hole. He’ll play well, be in the hunt for most of the week, but will fall a few shots short and collect a solid top-10 finish. It won’t be the result he wants, and we won’t be heading to the PGA Championship with the Grand Slam on the line, but we’ll all think there’s a chance for most of the tournament.


POSNANSKI: This has to be the week for Woods. He’s on a golf course he has dominated, his game is finally pointing north and he seems to be healthy and feeling good. I want to believe. But the word in the question is “expectations” and at this point I don’t see how you can expect him to play well. All you can do is hope.

HOGGARD: Current form aside, Woods is optimistic and it is for good reason following his best finish this year in his last start at The Greenbrier Classic (T-32) and a track record at the Old Course that includes two Open victories. Like Spieth, Woods won’t win but he seems poised for a top-25 finish.

LAVNER: I picked him to make the cut at the U.S. Open and how’d that turn out? It’s funny how one middling finish at an easy resort course can sway public perception, but I can’t shake the feeling that Woods is going to play well this week. Is his game sharp enough to win? No, that’s a leap I’m not yet ready to take, but he showed marked improvement with his irons at The Greenbrier, he looked fine during his practice rounds here and his course knowledge will give him a chance to record another high finish on one of his favorite courses. A top-10 isn’t unrealistic.

MOSIER: Sure, there’s the old adage that you “can’t ever count Tiger out,” but I’ll take my chances of counting him out until he gives me reason to count him in. His play this year has been far too erratic, and the negatives far outweigh the positives. He’ll make the cut, but will finish middle of the pack.

COFFIN: No clue where to go with this one. I always thought this would be the place where he has a chance to play his best and following his Greenbrier showing there’s still reason to believe that. But what is Tiger’s best these days? I’m not sure. He’ll make the cut, play four rounds but will be insignificant by Sunday. A top-40 finish is just around the corner.


POSNANSKI: Henrik Stenson seems like a great bet. He has the length, the slow greens should help his putting, he’s due. With all the talk about crazy weather coming Friday and Saturday, I suspect this one could go to a European player used to the conditions, which also make Justin Rose a threat. Or it could go to someone who knows this golf course well, which brings Louis Oosthuizen into play.

HOGGARD: The last time the Open was played at St. Andrews Paul Casey teed off on Sunday in the final group only to be run over by Louis Oosthuizen, who won by seven strokes. After a few difficult years dealing with injury, the Englishman has returned to top form and into the conversation at the Old Course with six top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour this season including a runner-up showing three weeks ago at the Travelers Championship.

LAVNER: Hey, it wasn’t a coincidence that Adam Scott put together his best performance of the year at the U.S. Open with Steve Williams back on the bag. Williams brings the best out of his man, and Scott seems to be back on track after a few months of listless play. Though he’s not as strong of a putter as some of the other top contenders, he’s actually better the farther he gets from the hole with the broomstick putter. The 25-footers at St. Andrews are the “make zone,” according to Justin Rose, and so it’s worth noting that Scott ranks in the top 25 in that category. If he can brush in a few of those longer putts he’ll have a great chance to capture the claret jug and redeem his 2012 collapse.

MOSIER: Lee Westwood. He’s making his 71st major championship appearance, so he has plenty of experience to draw from. He finished runner-up the last time the Open was held at St. Andrews, and held the 54-hole lead at Muirfield two years ago, ultimately finishing tied for third place.

COFFIN: I’m on the Louis Oosthuizen bandwagon, if there is such a thing. His impressive U.S. Open performance, coupled with a victory here five years ago at the Old Course, make him impossible to ignore. The only thing that makes me nervous is that he’s streaky. This season he’s collected five top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour, but also has recorded four missed cuts. Just a feeling that he’ll play well at a place he loves.

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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.

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“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.”

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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.”

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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.”