Hawk's Nest: Horschel, McIlroy define 2014 playoffs

By John HawkinsSeptember 15, 2014, 3:30 pm

Hey, at least the guy earned his $10 million, although we certainly can debate whether Billy Horschel should have been eligible for it in the first place. A 125-man postseason? That’s a jailbreak, not a playoff format. One top-10 finish in 22 full-field, regular-season starts? That’s a 7-11 conference record and 17-15 overall – not exactly worthy of a ticket to the Big Dance.

In the 10 ½ months prior to The Barclays, where he would miss the cut, Horschel dropped steadily in the world ranking (34h to 59th). He loitered outside the top 50 in the FedEx Cup standings from mid-March onward, closing at 69th, yet he’d earned enough points to qualify for the season-ending playoff derby by the first week of June.

It’s a system designed primarily to cushion the blow of mediocrity, and Horschel took complete advantage. He ran the table at precisely the right time, and when Rory McIlroy’s limousine ran out of gas a mile short of the Atlanta branch of Finchem Savings & Loan, we had ourselves a 2013-14 champion.

So the hottest golfer in the world, who happens to be an American, won’t be at Gleneagles, which happens to be the site of next week’s Ryder Cup. And the Yanks happen to be something akin to a two-touchdown underdog, which leaves me to wonder if one of our boys might suddenly pull a hammy or happen to come down with flu-like symptoms.

Looking for all the drama this year’s postseason derby couldn’t provide? Horschel’s wife, Brittany, is expecting their first child Sept. 27 – Day 2 of U.S. vs. the Euros.

“I honestly wasn’t going to play in the Ryder Cup if we couldn’t induce labor early,” Horschel said Sunday night. “When I started playing [poorly] this year, I put it out of my mind that I’d get picked. Obviously I wasn’t, and it’s going to work out perfectly.”

Well, sort of. If Billy Ho’s hotness doesn’t convince the PGA of America to start holding a captain’s pick until the week before the matches, perhaps future team sweaters should be woven from the wool of a sacrificial lamb. I stand by the notion that choosing hot players is overrated, simply because there’s close to a month between the selections and the first national anthem.

It doesn’t take long for any tour pro to cool off, but then, we’ve never had a situation like this.

“I still don’t feel like I deserve to be on the team,” Horschel added.

Pardon me, William, but that’s not for you or Brittany’s obstetrician to decide.

NINETY PERCENT AIR. If you’re a 16 handicap spending an afternoon in the right trees, it’s an adage steeped in optimism, an unofficial measure of hope with potentially expensive consequences. If you’re a tour pro such as McIlroy, you simply whip out a wedge and fly it over the wooded area, as he did Sunday at East Lake’s par-5 ninth.

There was a problem, however, and it also came with expensive consequences: McIlroy was cooked. The familiar bounce in his step was gone, his pursuit of the FedEx Cup overall title punctured by a tee shot that didn’t come close to finding land at the par-3 sixth. A modest back-nine rally would leave him three strokes behind Horschel, with whom he began the day sharing the lead.

The scenario would bear a passing resemblance to 2012, when McIlroy entered the final round three strokes off the pace and in excellent position to claim the $10 million, only to stumble home with a 74. In both cases, he entered the Tour Championship as the game’s best player, riding a stretch of dominance but unable to apply a finishing kick on the season’s last day.

“I’m looking forward to a few days off and not seeing my golf clubs for a little while,” were the first words from the Irish Lad’s mouth in his post-round press gathering. “And then, when I’m ready and excited to get back out again, I’ll get ready for the Ryder Cup.”

What should be of significant concern in Camp Ponte Vedra is McIlroy’s long-term commitment to the four-week postseason, particularly in Ryder Cup years. Not only has he squandered two pretty good chances to win the pot o’ gold; he has done it at points in his career when he had nothing to prove.

When you’ve won back-to-back majors and a World Golf Championship, as McIlrampage did this summer – or a major and back-to-back playoff tilts, as he did in ’12 – additional participation becomes solely about money. If rich people don’t buy lottery tickets, greatness doesn’t chase cash, and McIlroy’s body language suggested a pronounced lack of interest once things went wrong Sunday.

He’s Player of the Year, hands down, owner of one of the best non-Tiger seasons in the modern era. Sunday’s falter doesn’t change that a bit, although it is very likely to change how McIlragged arranges his schedule in future Septembers.

“If I had to do it all over again, I probably would have taken a week off somewhere in this stretch of tournaments,” said a guy who already had been wobbly about playing four straight. “Not that you feel obligated, but you want to support the events and give the sponsors something to be happy about and proud of. I’ve got a great relationship with BMW, and that was probably the only reason I did play in Denver.”

Ahem, it’s nice to know the young man has his priorities in order.

NOW THAT I’VE gone over the FedEx Cup playoff results for like the 19th time, I thought it might be interesting to review how America’s 12 Ryder Cuppers performed at each event.

Player The Barclays D. Bank BMW Tour Champ.
Bubba Watson  T-30  T-29  2nd  14th
Rickie Fowler  T-9  T-23  T-4  8th
Jim Furyk  8th  T-23  T-4  T-2
Jimmy Walker  MC  T-9  T-20  T-17
Phil Mickelson  78th  T-45  WD  DNQ
Matt Kuchar  T-5  T-29  T-46  13th
Jordan Spieth  T-22  T-29  T-8  T-27
Patrick Reed  T-9  T-74  T-53  T-19
Zach Johnson  T-22  T-16  T-43  21st
Keegan Bradley  53rd  T-16  WD  DNQ
Hunter Mahan  Won  64th  T-59  T-23
Webb Simpson  MC  T-9  T-53  T-23

A little too much information for you to consume at this point in the day? Allow me to help with some crib notes:

Skipper Tom Watson’s dubious dozen accumulated 13 top-10s in 50 total starts. Mahan obviously picked up the only victory – that’s why he’s on the team. What strikes me about the data is how infrequently U.S. players contended on any of the four Sundays, although a spot in the final-round hunt is a subjective appraisal.

For instance, I’m unwilling to give Fowler credit for contending at the Tour Championship. He finished solo eighth, six back, and wasn’t a realistic factor after a water ball at the sixth. There are lots of different ways to finish T-5, as Kuchar did at The Barclays – Kooch ended up one shot ahead of third-round co-leader Jim Furyk. Although neither had a chance of winning as the tournament reached its homestretch, I’ll begrudgingly give both credit for contending because they finished within four of Mahan.

As was the case a month ago, Furyk and Fowler remain America’s most consistent players – both performed solidly at all four postseason affairs. Neither, however, has won in forever, which means whatever you want it to mean. You want hot golfers? Talk to Brittany Horschel’s doctor.

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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?’”