Emphasis on putting has Spieth 18 holes from win

By Jason SobelDecember 6, 2014, 11:35 pm

WINDERMERE, Fla. – There was some poetic symmetry to Jordan Spieth’s third-round 63 on Saturday which won’t show up on any leaderboard. It actually began with the conclusion of his second round in glistening sunlight shining down upon the 18th green at Isleworth Golf & Country Club.

This was where, one day earlier, Spieth elected to stop playing rather than finish up in pitch-black darkness, the result of a mid-afternoon rain delay. His ball resting not far from the putting surface, he watched playing partner Zach Johnson complete his round, then walked off, knowing he’d be able to see better when he returned.

That return came at 10:15 a.m. and, though he didn’t know it when he’d stopped playing Friday afternoon, he had company. Steve Stricker had similarly decided to continue in the morning and so the two players finished up together.

Spieth chipped it close and made his par attempt. Stricker had a 50-foot birdie putt that he ran past the hole, then missed the par putt, too.

Not only did Spieth keep his eyes glued to Stricker’s putt, he kept it in his memory bank. Six hours later his ball was where the hole had been in the morning and the hole was where his playing partner’s ball had been. Spieth remembered the break, realized the speed and rolled in a 50-footer of his own to claim a seven-stroke lead entering the final round of the Hero World Challenge.

“I got a little feel of the speed maybe off seeing his this morning, which could have been a good break for me,” he explained. “It was actually very, very straight. Just played it pretty much in the center of the hole, maybe just outside of the right side of hole, and tried to get the right speed. I knew when it was about four feet to go that it was going to take a little left break. Put my putter up, which normally means it'll find a way to lip out, but that one fell in.”

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Of course, it’s difficult to consider any stroke a crucial one when so many rest between the guy in first place and everybody else.

That closing birdie was simply the cherry on top of a dominant performance, one of nine birdies on the day without a single blemish.

The end result is that the 21-year-old Texan is now in line for his third career professional victory and second in as many weeks, while the rest of the 18-man field is ready to wave the white flag.

“I don't think anybody is going to catch him tomorrow unless he's having a really bad day,” lamented Henrik Stenson, who is tied for second place. “Seems to be a one‑horse race.”

If Spieth can trace his final-hole birdie bomb to watching Stricker earlier in the day, he can trace his overall improved performance on the greens to a greater emphasis on his practice regimen prior to last week’s Australian Open title.

Unhappy with his putting at the Dunlop Phoenix one week earlier, Spieth rolled “hundreds” of putts on Tuesday and Wednesday under the watchful eye of instructor Cameron McCormick.

“He found a little something that I probably wouldn't have been able to find,” said Spieth, who has rolled in 23 birdie putts through 54 holes this week. “I've been working on it here, just tried to do that same feeling, same drills that Cameron and I worked on Tuesday and Wednesday in Australia. Yeah, I would say that we worked quite a bit more than normal last week.”

Or as his caddie, Michael Greller, put it: “Even my feet were hurting and I was just standing there.”

All of that work paid off with the win last week and is paying off again this week, as Spieth is on the verge of a rare back-to-back: Two wins on two different continents in two different hemispheres.

His continued sublime play this week can be attributed to that extra putting practice or getting enough sleep to counteract any jetlag or being comfortable on an Isleworth course where he once also lapped the field in college. Really, it’s a combination of each, but that underscores the real story here, the one major reason why Spieth is cruising past a field that contains only the best of the best in the world.

He’s really, really good. Let’s wait one more day to sound the sirens of what promises to be a very successful 2015 campaign. After all, it’s not over yet, but as one of Spieth’s closest competitors said “it’s a one-horse race” – and the guy leading is a thoroughbred.

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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.”