Major season not a good one for GOLF

By Joe PosnanskiAugust 3, 2016, 6:07 pm

As a golf fan, you might not care one bit if the professional game grows beyond its already sizable circle. That’s cool. And if you’re one of those golf fans who is happy to simply enjoy the professional game, then 2016 was a magical major champion season. We had great winners. We had drama. We had a duel for the ages.

It has been great for golf.

But — and here’s where we probably differ — I don’t think it’s been as great for GOLF, all capital letters.

What’s the difference between golf and GOLF? I guess I’d put it this way: It’s the difference between the Stanley Cup and the NHL regular season. It’s the difference between the Kentucky Derby and every other horse race. It’s the difference between the Indy 500 and other open-wheel races. Golf is a great sport. GOLF is a cultural phenomenon.

Yes, there are a few times in the game’s history when GOLF transcends its usual place in the American landscape and becomes something bigger. This happened for a time in the 1950s after Ben Hogan survived a horrible car crash and then came back to win the U.S. Open (and, a short while later, three majors in one year). They made a movie about that, threw a ticker tape parade for him, all that stuff.

GOLF became cool in the 1960s because Arnold Palmer was cool, the way he smoked his cigarettes and lashed at the ball and charged from behind at the finish. GOLF was titanic when Jack Nicklaus dueled with Palmer and Lee Trevino and Tom Watson.

And, of course, Tiger Woods took GOLF to unprecedented heights, unheard of ratings, impossibly high purses and all that. Tiger’s chase of “greatest player ever” masked his overwhelming accomplishment of becoming the most famous player ever. He made golf as important to sports fans as just about any other sport.

It seemed to me going into this major championship season that there was a chance for golf to once again skyrocket into America’s imagination. And, as great as 2016 was, I don’t think that happened. Don’t misunderstand: It was fantastic for golf fans. At the Masters, we watched Jordan Spieth’s first encounter with doubt and uncertainty. He collapsed down the stretch, and a fine English player, Danny Willett, played brilliantly and took the green jacket.

At the U.S. Open, we watched Dustin Johnson — a massive and star-crossed talent who can do things that no other player can — finally put it together and win even as the USGA clumsily mishandled a penalty ruling.

Photo gallery: Best moments from the 2016 major season

At The Open, we had perhaps the greatest duel in golf history — certainly right there with the Watson-Nicklaus Duel in the Sun at Turnberry in 1977 — as the superb Henrik Stenson somehow out-birdied Phil Mickelson while they both left the rest of the world far behind.

And finally, at a weather-flattened PGA Championship, a game Texan with the plain name of Jimmy Walker held off the world’s No. 1 player, Jason Day, to win his first major championship. All four of the champions, in fact, were excellent pros and first-time major winners.

But GOLF, the grand version of the game, is driven by superstars. And some of us came into this year with the hope, even the expectation, of having more than one superstar drive the sport on to the front pages and magazine covers and lead stories on TV.

As the year began, the top three players in the world were:

1. Spieth: Magical putter; winner of two major championships and the FedEx Cup in 2015; likable Texan, who doesn’t only play well, he serves as he own analyst on the course.

2. Day: Friendly Australian; record setter for lowest major championship score at the PGA Championship; inspiring story who overcame various troubles and built a near-flawless game.

3. Rory McIlroy: Powerful Irishman; perfect swing; probably has the highest ceiling of any player in the world — at his best, he might be unbeatable.

You couldn’t get three more perfect candidates to have a shootout for golf’s top billing. They are friendly with each other, but there’s an obvious rivalry between them. They have very different styles and games. They all have charisma. No one player can ever be Tiger, but together the three have a chance to give us a tension and sense of surprise that The Woods Era could not provide. This was a chance for something great.

And that just didn’t materialize. Spieth, after his meltdown at Augusta, wasn’t a factor in any of the other majors. Day certainly has had a good year — winning The Players Championship and WGC-Match Play and finishing second at the PGA — but he returned to his close-but-not-quite ways in the majors. And McIlroy was all over the place, finishing top 10 at two majors (though not really in contention for either) and missing the cut in the other two.

So that just didn’t come together.

Of course, golf fans will tell you, that’s no surprise. Golf is a game of disappointment. Day had an amazing year, even if he didn’t win any majors. Spieth won twice this year and led for all but the last nine holes at the Masters. McIlroy won in Dubai. It’s not fair to expect those guys to just compete at every major championship.

And it isn’t fair. But this is how Woods spoiled us and lifted GOLF to such great heights. He brought his game week after week after week. He didn’t miss major championship cuts (or, really, any cuts). He didn’t blow leads in the fourth round. He didn’t miss the putts that win and lose championships. There was never even the slightest doubt who the No. 1 player in the world was, and this made golf fascinating to people like my mother who would not even know which end of the golf club with which to hit. He gave order to the game — you could root for him or against him and it was just as fun.

Now, who is No. 1 in the world? The rankings say it’s Day. He’s had the best year, but without a major championship the year is incomplete. Johnson moved up to No. 2 in the world, and he certainly could become that big star that draws people to golf — he’s a thrilling player, there’s the Gretzky connection, etc. — but he has proven to be unreliable for various reasons, and he just had a stink bomb of a PGA Championship. Spieth? McIlroy? Rickie Fowler? The ageless Mickelson? Tiger himself? How about Beef?

There’s a lot of excitement in all that, and if you’re a golf fan, these are good times.

But if you’re not a golf fan, I suspect 2016 didn’t change your mind. And that’s the lost chance.  

Getty Images

Four players vying for DJ's No. 1 ranking at Open

By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 8:41 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Four players have an opportunity to overtake Dustin Johnson for world No. 1 this week.

According to Golf Channel world-rankings guru Alan Robinson, Justin Thomas, Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm all can grab the top spot in the world ranking.

Thomas’ path is the easiest. He will return to No. 1 with either a win and Johnson finished worse than solo third, or even a solo runner-up finish as long as Johnson finishes worse than 49th.

Twenty years after his auspicious performance in The Open, Rose can get to No. 1 for the first time with a victory and Johnson finishing worse than a two-way tie for third.

Kopeka can rise to No. 1 if he wins consecutive majors, assuming that his good friend posts worse than a three-way tie for third.

And Rahm can claim the top spot with a win this week, a Johnson missed cut and a Thomas finish worse than solo second.   

Johnson’s 15-month reign as world No. 1 ended after The Players. He wasn’t behind Thomas for long, however: After a tie for eighth at the Memorial, Johnson blew away the field in Memphis and then finished third at the U.S. Open to solidify his position at the top.

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, 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.