Z. Johnson leading Kapalua without his best stuff

By Jason SobelJanuary 5, 2014, 1:42 am

KAPALUA, Hawaii – Here are three signs an elite professional golfer is on top of his game:

1. He walks off the course disgusted with himself after failing to birdie any of the four par-5 holes during his round. “One of my goals every year is those par 5s,” he explains. “I'm a little bitter about that right now.”

2. He feels sick to his stomach after three-putting three times during the first 36 holes. “My goal this week was to not three‑putt,” he says. “I three‑putted three times. God, it sucks.”

3. Despite all of this, he is still the tournament leader by three strokes.

Welcome to Zach Johnson’s world. By his own admission, Johnson has been far from perfect over the opening two rounds of the Hyundai Tournament of Champions. All of which should make his lead over this elite field even more impressive.

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Only the best of the best – some guy named Tiger comes to mind – win these types of tournaments without their best stuff. And while Johnson hasn’t won anything yet, he’s winning so far with something less than his best.

“Pretty solid,” he called his second-round 7-under 66, which has him leading over Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Matt Kuchar.

That’s hardly the expected self-aggrandizement of a guy atop the leaderboard, not that Johnson practices that policy anyway. He’s never been a chest-beater, never one to gloat about his accomplishments, never one to celebrate himself.

After he defeated Woods at last month’s Northwestern Mutual World Challenge in thrilling fashion, Johnson celebrated by getting stuck in Atlanta for a night on his way back from the West Coast, then got home and went right back to business as usual by picking up his kids from school. So this was never going to be a guy doing an end zone dance in the scoring trailer after grabbing the lead.

But Johnson’s disapproval over a few major aspects of his game shouldn’t underscore the fact that he’s in position to win for a second time in as many starts – or that he’s doing it on a 7,411-yard course which doesn’t seem to suit his game, as evidenced by just one result better than 18th in six career starts.

“I'm just getting more and more comfortable here,” he explained. “I feel like I know how to prepare before I get here more than I am in the past. I take a lot of time off; I'm not afraid to do that, and I know when to get back it and I know what to do when I get here.”

It can be argued that the world’s uppermost echelon of players separate themselves from the rest based on the fact that they can win on any course, anywhere, anytime. It can similarly be argued that Johnson has vaulted himself into this uppermost echelon, proving once again this week that his game is suited to any venue.

Just don’t expect him to make that argument.

“No, I'm not,” he said. “If you're playing well, does it really matter where you play? Probably not. You know, to win golf tournaments out here, you've got to get good bounces; you've got to get putts that lip in.

“Saying that, there's a couple of tracks, a couple of venues, a couple of surfaces that I'm not overly comfortable with and I don't know if I'm completely eliminating them, but I've kind of got an idea as to when to play and when not to play.”

The truth is, the Plantation Course might be one of them if it didn’t also come with all the spoils of being a PGA Tour winner – the guaranteed paycheck and the trip to paradise among those, in no particular order.

And yet, Johnson’s longtime caddie, Damon Green, made the case after their round that for a player who once won the Masters by laying up on every single par-5 hole, this course may actually play right into his hands.

“He’s never had success here in the past, but we talked about it this week,” Green said. “There are a lot of wedges here, so there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be. He’s hit his wedges decent the last two days, so he’s had a lot of tap-ins, which makes putting easier – or so I hear.”

Johnson still isn’t playing his best golf. Far from it, if you listen to him grumble about missed opportunities on the par 5s and a few agonizing three-putts. Those might sound like bad problems to have, but it’s the mark of an elite player who can win a tournament of this caliber with something less than his best stuff.

After two rounds, Johnson is already halfway there.

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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.

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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.

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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?’”