Hawk's Nest: Best British Opens in last 20 years

By John HawkinsJuly 14, 2014, 5:40 pm

The 15th hole at my club is a short par 3 framed by a pair of towering sycamores. Neither tree is really in play. Both are handsome, healthy and more than 150 years old, but the chairman of the golf committee wants to them cut down.

As noted British pessimist and gifted musician Joe Jackson once griped, you give a man some power and he’ll use it for a while.

A political football is what the matter has become, shaped by strong opinions from men who make a lot of money looking after hedge funds or managing other people’s wealth. Frankly, I don’t know how anyone could justify the removal of such magnificent natural specimens, but then, I don’t have a two-year license to make such decisions or the urge to change the world with a chainsaw.

The hole is 135 yards long. The green is significantly undulated but plenty wide enough for a short iron, and there are no air-circulation issues that might cause undue duress to the putting surface.

When the whole tree-reduction movement became en vogue a while back, that was the very purpose: to improve course conditions. Winged Foot and Oakmont were among the clubs that embarked on such a project – better air flow means firmer, faster greens, which means you can host U.S. Opens and make millions in the merchandise tent.

Trees are like teeth, however, and when you take one out, you can’t put it back.

THERE AREN’T A whole lot of trees at Royal Liverpool, or on any British Open site, for that matter. I made my first trip overseas to cover the tournament 20 years ago – Nick Price roared from behind down the homestretch to clip Jesper Parnevik – and I was floored by the simple, stunning beauty of Turnberry.

We won’t be getting those scenics this week. With all due respect to its dues-paying membership, Liverpool is the least appealing venue in the British Open rota – flat as a bowling alley and astonishingly unmemorable. A least Royal St. George’s, which I consider the world’s largest unmade bed, has some contours, a hint of definition.

For whatever reason, the R&A decided to return to Hoylake, as it is also called, in 2006 after a 39-year absence, perhaps because the old boys thought the tournament needed another venue in England. Without question, the Scottish sites as a whole are far superior to those of its southern neighbor. Birkdale is the only English layout with the type of character and inherent challenge you’d expect at a major championship, but that’s one reason why this tournament is so cool.

It’s about the people playing in it more than the ground they’re playing on, so my list of the five best British Opens in the last 20 years plays no favorites in terms of course quality.

5. Troon, 2004. An outrageous sequel to Ben Curtis’ mind-blowing victory a year earlier – we could go 100 years and not see bigger back-to-back upsets. Todd Hamilton gets the nod over Curtis for a few reasons. He beat Ernie Els in a playoff. Phil Mickelson was in it until the very end, and the golf from all contenders was superb.

Lasting memory: Els was in a very foul mood after losing by a stroke in the four-hole tiebreaker. The Big Easy stormed off to the car park without taking questions. Mickelson had nipped him at the Masters three months earlier, and now this.

4. Turnberry, 2009. Tom Watson’s agonizing loss proved one thing: The golf gods have a sick sense of humor. The rotten-luck bogey on the 72nd hole was bad enough, but to see the man totally fall apart in the playoff against Stewart Cink was unbearable. Cink would emerge as the ultimate villain, but he did sink a putt on that same 18th green in regulation to force the issue.

Lasting memory: Upon reaching the media center, the first words out of Watson’s mouth were priceless: “This ain’t a funeral, you know.” Under very similar circumstances a year earlier, Sergio Garcia couldn’t have behaved more childishly.

3. Liverpool, 2006. The 1997 Masters and 2000 U.S. Open stand alone, but otherwise, this was the finest performance of Tiger Woods’ career. A rare dry season had turned the ground to concrete, which allowed Woods to abandon his driver and lead the field in fairways hit. He was paired in Sunday’s final group with Garcia, whose bright yellow pants inspired Tiger to quip afterward, “I think I just bludgeoned Tweety Bird.”

Lasting memory: It was a brutally warm week in northern England, and the house we were living in had no air conditioning. I walked two miles to a drug store to buy a fan, arriving in a sweaty heap. “Sorry, sir,” the clerk told me. “We sold our last one no more than 10 minutes ago.”

2. St. Andrews, 1995. It’s hard to rank this baby second, seeing how John Daly turned into a superhero and won his second major title in a 40-mph breeze over Costantino Rocca, who holed a three-mile putt from the Valley of Sin to force a playoff. This was a never-a-dull-moment week, full of wild twists and wicked turns, but Daly got on the leaderboard early and stayed there. Throughout the week, his putting was as good as you’ll ever see.

Lasting memory: Daly’s post-round news conferences were ridiculously funny. Friday’s was the best, as the big fella was more than happy to provide details on the four massive donuts he ate while waiting for traffic to clear on the eighth tee.

1. Muirfield, 2013. A year later, it only seems more amazing because Mickelson hasn’t come close to winning a tournament since. He had just fumbled another U.S. Open at the goal line. His British Open history wasn’t as bad as some made it out to be, but you could have offered 20-1 odds that he’d never win one – and nobody would have taken the bet. Few performances over the last 20 years have done a better job of shaping a player’s legacy.

Lasting memory: When I saw Mickelson in the locker room at the PGA Championship a month later, I congratulated him on the win and joked that I never had a doubt. Instead of giving me the aw-shucks reply that has become his trademark, I could see him basking in the accomplishment for a moment or two. It was a response I’d never seen from him before.

WE CAN TALK about this week’s favorites. Justin Rose? Hottest golfer on the planet, but his last (and only) top-10 finish at a British occurred when he was 17 years old. There have been three missed cuts in his last four starts – that’s not exactly stellar.

Rory McIlroy? The kid talks a good game, and he obviously means well, but he’s a parkland course player, an Irish lad with Americanized skills.

The Dude in the Red Shirt? Please. Woods sputtered like a jalopy at Congressional, then took two weeks off. Besides, this ain’t 2006.

Jordan Spieth? Nice player. Big-game performer. And he remains stuck on one victory – at a weak-field event last summer, no less.

Truth of the matter is, nobody will arrive at Hoylake playing at a level that will set him apart from anyone else. The funny thing is, Woods is still the odds-maker’s favorite in the United States, priced in the 10-1 to 12-1 neighborhood, but the British bookies no better. They’ve been watching, and Tiger is priced at an average of about 17-1.

You can listen to your heart or wager with your head. Here’s how the first row of favorites stack up through the cumulative tallies of eight overseas agencies:

Rory McIlroy 12.5
Justin Rose 12.75
Adam Scott 15.5
Henrik Stenson 16.5
Martin Kaymer 18.25
Tiger Woods 17
Phil Mickelson 22.13

I can’t remember the last time every player reached the week of a major above 12-1 – the golden age of parity is upon us. Looking for some sleepers, guys who are underpriced? Brandt Snedeker immediately stands out. He has a relatively strong history at the majors for someone in the 50-1 range and he holes putts – at least, he used to. Zach Johnson is another. Very good tough course player, outstanding putter who gets up and down from everywhere, and I can guarantee you, length will not be a huge factor this week, rain or shine.

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Faldo: Woods told fellow Masters champ 'I'm done' in '17

By Will GrayAugust 14, 2018, 7:42 pm

Fresh off his runner-up finish at the PGA Championship, it's easy to get caught up in the recent success and ebullient optimism surrounding Tiger Woods. But it was not that long ago that Woods even hitting a competitive shot was very much in doubt.

Six-time major champ Sir Nick Faldo shed light on those darker times during a recent appearance on the Dan Patrick Show in which he relayed a story from the 2017 Masters champions' dinner. The annual meal is one of golf's most exclusive fraternities, as only the chairman of Augusta National Golf Club is allowed to dine with the men who have each donned a green jacket.

Last spring Woods had not yet undergone spinal fusion surgery, and Faldo explained that Woods at one point turned to an unnamed Masters champ and grimly assessed his future playing chances.

"I know he whispered to another Masters champion, two Masters dinners ago, 'I'm done. I won't play golf again,'" Faldo said. "He said, 'I'm done. I'm done, my back is done.' He was in agony. He was in pain. His leg, the pain down his legs, there was nothing enjoyable. He couldn't move. If you watched footage of him, he couldn't even get in and out of the golf cart at the (2016) Ryder Cup when he was a vice captain."

But Woods opted for fusion surgery a few weeks later, and after a lengthy rehab process he returned to competition in December. His 2018 campaign has been nothing short of remarkable, with a pair of runner-up finishes to go along with a T-6 result at The Open when he held the outright lead on the back nine on Sunday.

After apparently even counting himself out, Woods is back up to 26th in the latest world rankings and appears in line to be added as a captain's pick for the Ryder Cup next month.

"What he's been able to do is unbelievable," Faldo said. "To turn this aruond, to get this spine fusion, it's completely taken away the pain. To have this mobility is absolutely amazing> Great on him, and great for golf."

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McDowell needs Wyndham result to maintain status

By Will GrayAugust 14, 2018, 5:56 pm

For the first time in nearly three years, Graeme McDowell heads into an event with his PGA Tour status hanging in the balance.

The Ulsterman joined the Tour in 2006, and he has had nearly uninterrupted status since winning the 2010 U.S. Open. But McDowell's two-season exemption for winning the 2015 OHL Classic at Mayakoba only extends through this week, where he will start the Wyndham Championship at No. 143 in the season-long points race.

McDowell tied for fifth at Sedgefield Country Club in 2016, and he will likely need a similar result to crack the top 125 in the standings and retain his fully exempt status for the 2019 season. While he finished T-10 in Las Vegas in November, that remains his lone top-10 finish of the Tour season. The veteran's best results this year have come in Europe, where he tied for fifth at the Italian Open and finished T-12 at the BMW PGA Championship.

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"I'm trying not to put too much pressure on myself. I feel like it's not a do-or-die scenario for me," McDowell told reporters earlier this month at the Barracuda Championship. "I feel if I was 25 years old without a European Tour card to fall back on, it would be a do-or-die scenario. Certainly trying to put the pressure off, if I don't get myself into the top 125 it's not the end of the world for me. I still feel like I can play a great schedule next season."

By finishing Nos. 126-150 in points after this week, McDowell would retain conditional status that would likely ensure him at least 12-15 starts next season. He would also still have privileges as a past tournament champion.

But he's not the only winner from the 2015-16 season whose two-year exemption is on the verge of running out. Fabian Gomez (160th), Peter Malnati (164th) and Billy Hurley III (202nd) all need big results in Greensboro to keep their cards, while Shane Lowry, David Lingmerth and Matt Every all earned three-year exemptions for victories in 2015 but currently sit Nos. 139, 140 and 184 in points, respectively.

Last year four players moved into the top 125 thanks to strong play at Wyndham, with the biggest jump coming from Rory Sabbatini, who went from No. 148 to No. 122 after tying for fourth place.

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Vogel Monday qualifies for eighth time this season

By Will GrayAugust 14, 2018, 5:27 pm

The PGA Tour's regular season ended with another tally for the Monday King.

While Monday qualifiers are a notoriously difficult puzzle to solve, with dozens of decorated professionals vying for no more than four spots in a given tournament field, T.J. Vogel has turned them into his personal playground this season. That trend continued this week when he earned a spot into the season-ending Wyndham Championship, shooting a 5-under 66 and surviving a 4-for-3 playoff for the final spots.

It marks Vogel's eighth successful Monday qualification this season, extending the unofficial record he set when he earned start No. 7 last month at The Greenbrier. Patrick Reed earned the nickname "Mr. Monday" when he successfully qualified six different times during the 2012 season before securing full-time status.

There have been 24 different Monday qualifiers throughout the season, with Vogel impressively turning 19 qualifier starts into eight tournament appearances.

Vogel started the year with only conditional Web.com Tour status, and explained at the AT&T Byron Nelson in May that he devised his summer schedule based on his belief that it's easier to Monday qualify for a PGA Tour event than a Web.com tournament.

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"The courses that the PGA Tour sets the qualifiers up, they're more difficult and sometimes they're not a full field whereas the Web, since there's no pre-qualifier, you have two full fields for six spots each and the courses aren't as tough," Vogel said. "So I feel like if you take a look at the numbers, a lot of the Web qualifiers you have to shoot 8-under."

Vogel has made three cuts in his previous seven starts this year, topping out with a T-16 finish at the Valspar Championship in March. The 27-year-old also played the weekend at the Nelson and the Wells Fargo Championship, missing the cut at The Greenbrier in addition to the RSM Classic, Honda Classic and FedEx St. Jude Classic.

While Vogel won't have another Monday qualifier opportunity until October, he has a chance to secure some 2019 status this week in Greensboro. His 51 non-member FedExCup points would currently slot him 205th in the season-long race, 13 points behind Rod Pampling at No. 200. If Vogel earns enough points to reach the equivalent of No. 200 after this week, he'd clinch a spot in the upcoming Web.com Tour Finals where he would have a chance to compete for a full PGA Tour card for the 2018-19 season.

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Woods adds BMW Championship to playoff schedule

By Will GrayAugust 14, 2018, 5:01 pm

Tiger Woods is adding a trip to Philadelphia to his growing playoff itinerary.

Having already committed to both The Northern Trust and the Dell Technologies Championship, Woods' agent confirmed to GolfChannel.com that the 14-time major champ will also make an appearance next month at the BMW Championship. It will mark Woods' first start in the third leg of the FedExCup playoffs since 2013 when he tied for 11th at Conway Farms Golf Club outside of Chicago.

This year the Sept. 6-9 event is shifting to Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown Square, Pa., which is hosting the BMW for the first time. The course previously hosted the Quicken Loans National in both 2010 and 2011. Woods won the BMW en route to FedExCup titles in both 2007 and 2009 when it was held at Cog Hill in Illinois.

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Woods was already in good position to make the 70-man BMW field, but his runner-up finish at the PGA Championship vaulted him from 49th to 20th in the season-long points race and assured that he'll make it to Aronimink regardless of his performance in the first two postseason events.

Woods' commitment also means a packed schedule will only get busier leading into the Ryder Cup, where he is expected to be added as a captain's pick. Woods' appearance at the BMW will cap a run of five events in six weeks, and should he tee it up in Paris it could be his seventh start in a nine-week stretch if he also qualifies for the 30-player Tour Championship.