Zika virus not discouraging most would-be Olympians

By Will GrayMay 26, 2016, 10:38 pm

FORT WORTH, Texas – Over the last few weeks, golf has begun to develop its own four-letter word, one that has started to ripple its way through the sport with increasing speed.

Zika.

The Olympics kick off in Rio de Janeiro in exactly 72 days, a fact that has brought increased scrutiny to the Zika virus outbreak currently affecting Brazil among other parts of the Americas. Its impact and scope continue to develop, even according to the World Health Organization, and it will likely cause nearly every Olympian to take at least some sort of precautionary measure.

But when it comes to golf, which returns to the Olympics this summer for the first time since 1904, Zika is actually impacting the field of entrants. While players like Adam Scott, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel withdrew from Olympic consideration over scheduling issues, Vijay Singh and Marc Leishman both specifically cited the virus as a factor in their recent withdrawals.

Things escalated once again this week when both Rory McIlroy and Danny Willett hinted that the virus might influence their decisions to tee it up in Rio, and even the top American noted that the issue remains in the forefront.

“I’m interested in keeping a very close eye on what’s going on around the Olympics, too, mainly off the course,” Jordan Spieth said Wednesday. “Trying to figure out the safety concerns, figure out plans, but as of now I’m extremely excited for it.”

While Zika may impact golf’s return to the Olympic stage, there are still plenty of players eager to compete for gold.

Few players understand golf’s global nature more than India’s Anirban Lahiri. The 28-year-old left his native country on Jan. 9, and he estimates that he won’t return until the conclusion of the FedEx Cup season. In between, he’ll play a cross-continent schedule, highlighted by a stretch this summer that he described as “45 days of mayhem.”

That run will include a trip to Rio where Lahiri, ranked No. 56 in the world, will almost assuredly earn one of two spots on the Indian golf roster. That ranking could be in the midst of an upgrade this week after Lahiri opened with a 5-under 65 at Colonial Country Club to sit one shot off the lead.

Lahiri is aware of the Zika situation, noting that “the threat is real.” He’s planning to take plenty of recommended precautions, both before traveling and once in the Olympic village.

But hailing from a populous country where golf is not necessarily viewed as a priority, Lahiri feels that the positives of a potentially strong showing outweigh the personal risks associated with making the trip.

“It would mean a lot to the country to get a medal out of a game like golf, and probably put that in the forefront or in the spotlight,” Lahiri said. “So for me, the Olympics is a very important event, maybe more so than a lot of guys who are going, because of that.”

New Zealand’s Danny Lee is also projected to qualify for Rio, and he has been keeping an eye on the situation in Brazil as it has developed. But like Lahiri, he plans to play.

“It’s not like I don’t care about the Zika virus or all that stuff happening over there, but it still is the Olympics,” Lee said. “You’re representing your country and you’re going as an Olympian instead of trying to win money or accomplish something. You are accomplishing something if you win a medal, but it’s more for the honor than the glory, I guess.”

For Lee, it’s also an opportunity to bring attention to a country which has produced a men’s major champion in Michael Campbell as well as the world’s top-ranked female player, Lydia Ko, but which is sometimes overlooked on the golf landscape.

“Everybody thinks there’s not many good golfers in New Zealand. I just want to prove them wrong,” said Lee, who won last year at The Greenbrier Classic. “It’s just, New Zealand is so far from America, it’s hard to watch a lot of the New Zealand guys play. And they don’t have enough of an opportunity to come over here and play all the amateur golf that I did, because it’s not cheap to come over here.”

When it comes to player decisions regarding Zika, there is no correct answer. The choice to play is a deeply personal one, and it’s an especially nuanced situation for players who may consider having children in the near future.

But even if the withdrawals have not yet ended, one thing is certain: There will be 60 players eager to take part in golf’s Olympic return this summer, each with an eye on boosting its global appeal on the biggest stage around.

“For me personally, I want to play the Olympics,” Lahiri said. “I really, really want to play the Olympics because it’s a great opportunity for me to do something for my sport.”

 

Getty Images

Punch shot: Predictions for the 147th Open

By Golf Channel DigitalJuly 18, 2018, 4:00 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – In advance of the 147th Open Championship, GolfChannel.com writers sound off on burning questions as players ready for a fast and firm test at Carnoustie. Here’s what our writers think about myriad topics:

The Monday morning headline will be …

REX HOGGARD: “Survival.” This one is easy. It always is at Carnoustie, which is widely considered The Open’s most demanding major championship test. Monday’s headline will be that the champion - pick a champion, any one will do - “survived” another dramatic Open. You don’t dominate Carnoustie; you endure.

RYAN LAVNER: “DJ Bashes Way to Victory at Carnoustie.” If somehow a two-win season could be disappointing, it has been for DJ. He’s first in scoring average, birdie average, par-4 scoring, par-5 scoring, strokes gained: tee to green and proximity from the rough. Those last two stats are the most important, especially here at Carnoustie, with these dry conditions. The game’s preeminent long-and-straight driver, there’s a better-than-decent chance he rolls.

MERCER BAGGS: “Rahm Tough: Spaniard charges to Open victory.” Jon Rahm will claim him maiden major title this week by powering his way through the winds and fescue at Carnoustie.

JAY COFFIN: “Thomas wins second major, ascends to world No. 1 again.” Shortly after The Open last year, Thomas rolled through the end of the PGA Tour season. This is the time of year he likes best. Despite a poor Open record the last two years, he’s not remotely concerned. He’s a tad miffed he didn’t win in France two weeks ago and comes to Carnoustie refreshed, with a gameplan, and ready to pounce.



Who or what will be the biggest surprise?

HOGGARD: Style of play. Given Carnoustie’s reputation as a brute, the surprise will be how the champion arrives at his lofty perch. Unlike previous editions at Carnoustie, this week’s dry conditions will promote more aggressive play off the tee and the winner will defy the norm and power his way to victory.

LAVNER: Tiger Woods. This is Woods’ best chance to win a major this year, and here’s believing he contends. His greatest strengths are his iron game and scrambling, and both aspects will be tested to the extreme at Carnoustie, helping separate him from some of the pretenders. With even a little cooperation from his putter, he should be in the mix.

BAGGS: Padraig Harrington. He had a good opening round last week at the Scottish Open and has some good vibes being the 2007 Open champion at Carnoustie. He won’t contend for four rounds, but a few days in the mix would be a nice surprise.

COFFIN: Alex Noren. Perhaps someone ranked 11th in the world shouldn’t be a surprise, but with so much focus on some of the bigger, household names, don’t be surprised when Noren is in contention on Sunday. He hasn’t finished worse than 25th since early May and won two weeks ago in France. He also tied for sixth place last year at Royal Birkdale.



Who or what will be the biggest disappointment?

HOGGARD: Jordan Spieth. Although he was brilliant on his way to victory last year at Royal Birkdale, Spieth is not the same player for this week’s championship, the byproduct of a balky putter that has eroded his confidence. Spieth said giving back the claret jug this week was hard, but his finish will be even tougher.

LAVNER: Weather. This might sound a little sadistic, but one of the unique joys of covering this tournament is to watch the best in the world battle conditions they face only once a year – the bone-chilling cold, the sideways rain, the howling wind. It doesn’t appear as though that’ll happen this year. With only a few hours of light rain expected, and no crazy winds in the forecast, the biggest challenge for these stars will be judging the bounces on the hard, baked-out turf.

BAGGS: Jordan Spieth. The defending champion is still trying to find his winning form and Carnoustie doesn’t seem the place to do that. As much as he says he loves playing in strong winds, there should be enough danger around here to frustrate Spieth into a missed cut.

COFFIN: Rory McIlroy. I hope I’m wrong on this, because the game is better when Rory is in contention at majors. Putting always has been his issue and seemingly always will be. While there isn’t as much of a premium placed on putting this week because of slower greens, he may still have to hit it close. Super close.



What will be the winning score?

HOGGARD: 10 under. The last two Opens played at Carnoustie were won with 7-under and 6-over totals, but this week’s conditions will favor more aggressive play and lower scores. Expect to see plenty of birdies, but the great equalizer will come on Sunday when wind gusts are forecast to reach 25 mph.

LAVNER: 15 under. An Open at Carnoustie has never produced a winner lower than 9 under (Tom Watson in 1975), but never have the conditions been this susceptible to low scores. Sure, the fairway bunkers are still a one-shot penalty, but today’s big hitters can fly them. The thin, wispy rough isn’t much of a deterrent. And the wind isn’t expected to really whip until the final day.

BAGGS: 12 under. We aren’t going to see the same kind of weather we have previously witnessed at Carnoustie, and that’s a shame. Any players who catch relatively benign conditions should be able to go low, as long as they can properly navigate the fairway rollout.

COFFIN: 14 under. Walked into a local golf shop in the town of Carnoustie wearing a Golf Channel logo and the man behind the counter said, “It’ll take 14 under to win this week.” Well, he’s been here for years and seen Carnoustie host The Open twice before. He knows more about it than I do, so I’ll stick with his number.

@kharms27 on Instagram

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.  

@radiosarks on Twitter

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?’”