Remarkable and unpredictable year in golf

By John FeinsteinDecember 8, 2015, 1:30 pm

It was, first and foremost, the year of Jordan. But it was also the year of Jason. And Zach. It was the year Tiger Woods confessed that he understood mortality. It was the year when soccer – pickup soccer at that – changed the storyline for a major championship. 

It was also the year when the Presidents Cup had some drama and the Solheim Cup became a melodrama. It was the year that Lydia Ko and Inbee Park dueled to the finish line to be queen of the women’s game. 

It was the year when the U.S. Open began each morning with a guessing game: Par 4 or par 5? Only Mike Davis knew. It was the year of the new Big Three: Spieth, Day and McIlroy. Or would it be a Big Four with Rickie Fowler jumping on board? 

And, it was the year of the task force. 

In short, 2015 was the year that golf had just about everything one could possibly ask for in terms of storylines and drama. 

Think first about the four major championships: Spieth's bravura performance going wire-to-wire at Augusta; Spieth's birdie and Dustin Johnson’s three-putt at spectacular but quirky Chambers Bay; Spieth and Day each missing the three-man playoff – won by Zach Johnson – at St. Andrews by inches; and finally, Day putting on a historic performance at Whistling Straits to hold off Spieth and win his long-awaited first major. 

The only down note connected to the majors was McIlroy’s absence from St. Andrews. Two weeks prior he was playing pickup soccer with some friends when he tore ligaments in his ankle. All the kid’s horses and all the kid’s men couldn’t put him back together again in time to defend the title he had won a year earlier in Liverpool. 

McIlroy made it back to play respectably in the PGA but his major season was effectively ended by the fluke injury. He did win in Dubai at year’s end, reminding everyone that he plans to be a major factor next year. 

After winning the PGA, Day then played so spectacularly the first three weeks of the playoffs – winning twice in dominant fashion – that there were actually some saying he could win Player of the Year honors if he climaxed his run with a win at East Lake. Spieth put an end to that talk by winning for a fifth time to wrap up everything there was to be wrapped up. 

And so, one year after everyone agreed the next 10 years would be dominated by McIlroy, Spieth dominated in much the same way McIlroy had in 2014, and moved to No. 1 in the world rankings. With Spieth (22 years old), Day (27) and McIlroy (26) ensconced in the top three spots in those rankings it seemed clear that golf’s new order had arrived. 

Of course, Johnson reminded everyone that the old guys can still play, too, when he won the British Open nine months prior to turning 40. 

Johnson is two months younger than Woods – who will hit 40 on December 30. The year wasn’t nearly as joyous for the man who transformed the game early in this century as it was for many others.

Once, Woods never missed cuts – making 142 in a row at one point. In 2015, most of his starts were divided into two categories: those in which he struggled to make the cut and those in which he missed it by a mile. 

He shot a historically-awful 82 in the second round at Phoenix, then walked off the golf course a week later in San Diego saying that his glutes weren’t firing. He managed to conquer the chipping yips in time to finish T-17 at the Masters, but that turned out to be his best performance in a major. He missed the cut comfortably in the other three. 

Through it all, Woods kept insisting it was all a process, that he saw progress and that he just had to stick to what he was doing. He finally did show some progress in Greensboro, contending for three rounds before a final-round 70 dropped him from a tie for second to a tie for 10th. 

On that same day, Davis Love III shot 64 and, at age 51, won for the 21st time in his career. 

Love was a major figure in the sport all year because he was the surprise choice as next year’s Ryder Cup captain. Love was part of the 11-man task force assigned to figure out a way to stop the bleeding for the U.S. Ryder Cup team, which dropped to 2-8 dating to 1995 after the debacle at Gleneagles. 

When Love realized that everyone in the room was (metaphorically) looking at him (he was on the phone) during discussions about who should be the next captain, he began calling the other players on the task force as soon as the group took a break. 

“I’ll do this,” he told them all, “but only if I have your word you’ll do anything I ask you to do.”

That included accepting a role as vice captain for those who weren’t on the team, which is why several months later, Woods, Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker were named along with Tom Lehman to be assistants. 

The task force discussions were Mickelson’s one real victory of the year. While he struggled with his game, his imprint was clear on many of the decisions made by a group that came into existence in large part because of the invective Mickelson directed at previous captain Tom Watson. The players need more input in all decisions, Mickelson insisted. Six players were on the task force, with Mickelson the most vocal. 

The year came to a stunning conclusion on a quiet Tuesday in December when all the important golf had been played and everyone was ramping up for 2016. 

By then, Woods had been absent from the golf course since that Sunday in Greensboro when he began to feel pain in his hip. A few weeks later, he underwent back surgery, again. And then, stunningly, he had to go back for yet another procedure. 

Woods arrived at the exhibition event he has hosted for a number of years to play host to the 18-players competing and to all his various sponsors. When he met with the media for a pre-tournament news conference everyone expected the usual platitudes about process and progress and staying the course. 

Instead, they listened to a Woods they had never heard before. There was, he said, no timetable for his return or even for beginning rehab. He talked about his career almost as if it was past tense saying at one point, "Anything I do from here on will be gravy." If he didn’t catch Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major victories, “I’ll still have had a pretty good run.”

Woods’ run has been spectacular. Hearing him concede that the end of that run may be in sight was stunning, even shocking. 

In a sense, though, it was an apt ending for 2015. Because, in truth, almost nothing that happened during the year was predictable: Spieth’s dominance; Day’s remarkable summer; Johnson’s Open victory; even Love’s win in Greensboro. No one saw any of that coming anymore than they foresaw Woods opening his mouth and, for all intents and purposes saying, “yup, I’m mortal, too.” 

Which is why predicting what is to come in 2016 is just about impossible. Which means, like the year just past, it should be remarkably compelling. 

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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 each can grab the top spot in the world ranking.

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

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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 of 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.

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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, 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.”

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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.