Hawk's Nest: Picking apart Digest; picking a champ

By John HawkinsApril 7, 2014, 1:32 pm

So I’m at the 1995 Final Four in Seattle, covering college basketball for the Washington Times, with a flight to Georgia early the next morning to do the Masters. There’s a layover in Pittsburgh, however, and just as we’re about to touch down on the runway, the pilot suddenly veers the jet back into the sky.

We circle the airport for another 15 or 20 minutes. A few of the passengers are freaking out, but for the most part, the cabin is full of silent concern and bewilderment. When you’re flying a Boeing 757, you really shouldn’t need a breakfast ball, but we do land safely, at which point I head straight to a pay phone.

“I’m not going to Augusta,” I tell my editor.

“What do you mean?” he replies.

“I’m never flying again. I’ll walk home from Pittsburgh if I have to. I’m still in pretty good shape.”

“You can’t not go to the Masters,” Gary reasoned. “And besides, it’ll probably be another seven or eight years before something creepy happens again.”

Logic is kind of like ice cream – it comes in a bunch of different flavors, including Rocky Road. I boarded my connection and ultimately saw Ben Crenshaw claim one of the most emotionally stirring victories in tournament history, so the next time a man begins sobbing after successfully reaching his destination, don’t just write him off as some fragilely composed sissy.

You never know how difficult the journey might have been.

GOD BLESS THE LPGA. It is a league that earns respect in modest doses, going about its business while barely appearing on the mainstream-sports radar. This causes some uneasy tension when a local media power (such as Golf Digest) runs a picture of Wayne Gretzky’s daughter, who doesn’t play professionally, on its April cover.

We call it eye candy, a commercially driven art form popularized by Maxim and scores of other print publications. For decades, pretty girls have sold magazines, and that’s what this is all about. It has nothing to do with how many majors Inbee Park has won or how good Lydia Ko is going to be. It’s just business, man.

Few businesses have gotten tougher in recent years than the industry that relies on the printed word. The outcry of protest over Digest’s Paulina Gretzky cover feels more like a case of misdirected frustration than an argument built on sound reason – you go home and kick the dog because your boss gave the promotion to someone else.

“If a magazine called Golf Digest is interested in showcasing females in the game, yet consistently steers away from the true superstars who’ve made history over the last few years, something clearly is wrong,” LPGA commissioner Mike Whan said in a statement last Friday. “Growing the game means a need for more role models, and in these exciting times for women’s golf, the LPGA is overflowing with them.”

Actually, you could make a case that a hot blonde with a high handicap and 300,000 followers on both Twitter and Instagram is more valuable to the game’s growth than, say, Natalie Gulbis (188,000 on Twitter) or Paula Creamer (28,000 on Instagram). Still, that’s not the point. Growing the game is not Golf Digest’s primary mission. Selling copies of their product is.

As for the superstar factor, the LPGA doesn’t have one. The two best players of this generation (Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa) retired early, leaving a void that hasn’t been filled for any extended period of time. Besides, monthly magazines operate differently than a news-based weekly or a golfcentric website.

How to play, where to play, what to play. That’s what appeals to many recreational golfers, and that’s what Golf Digest sells. The competitive element among tour pros is not a high priority, although generating buzz is. As chagrined as the LPGA may be over the Paulina cover, its public disapproval will only help newsstand sales in the coming month.

IN CASE YOU haven’t noticed, I love the Masters. And if you’re Matt Kuchar, who has fumbled great chances to win on each of the past two Sundays, you should love it, too. Phil Mickelson is the only player in the last 50 years to claim a green jacket after winning the previous week – he pulled it off in 2006.

Tiger Woods arrived at Augusta National in 2001 having won his prior two starts (Bay Hill and The Players), but he’d skipped the BellSouth Classic, his customary week off before a major. Here’s a list of all Masters champs since 2000 and how they fared in their three tournaments leading in (results in reverse order).

2013: Adam Scott T-30, T-3, T-33
2012: Bubba Watson T-4, 2, T-17
2011: Charl Schwartzel T-30, T-47, T-24
2010: Phil Mickelson T-35, T-30, T-14
2009: Angel Cabrera MC, MC, T-32
2008: Trevor Immelman MC, T-40, T-48
2007: Zach Johnson T-9, T-42, T-14
2006: Phil Mickelson 1, T-14, T-12
2005: Tiger Woods T-53, T-23, 1
2004: Phil Mickelson 10, T-3, T-24
2003: Mike Weir MC, T-27, T-14
2002: Tiger Woods T-14, 1, 2
2001: Tiger Woods 1, 1, T-13
2000: Vijay Singh T-33, T-29, T-50

All this data means as much or little as you want it to mean, but the fact of the matter is, hot golfers don’t win many green jackets. Woods just won a lot, period, and Mickelson hasn’t done too badly himself, but Bubba is the only guy in recent years who came in playing really well, then culminated that stretch of outstanding play with a major title.

Kuchar should be in a great spot mentally. Yeah, that water ball on the 72nd hole in Houston wasn’t a great idea, but Matt Jones holed a ridiculous chip on the first playoff hole to beat him, and San Antonio (the week before) was kind of a mess for everybody. It’s stupid to think that failing to close the door will help him win a Masters, but you don’t want to sniff the azaleas with a brand-new winner’s check in your back pocket.

MY PICK? I’LL take the Irish Lad. A closing 65 in rainy Houston was the perfect uptick for Rory McIlroy, who has a history of not performing well in lousy weather. He’s too talented and too driven to not contend at some point, and he comes into the week a little under the radar, at least by the usual standards.

As Paul Azinger once told me, “The average golfer hits his long irons too low and his short irons too high. A tour pro wants to do the opposite. Long irons high, short irons low. Especially at Augusta National.” McIlroy might be the best in the game at the high-low thing, and his enormous length off the tee should earn him scoring opportunities that aren’t available to others.

I’ve been telling anyone who will listen that Sergio Garcia is my sleeper. You could look at the results in Houston and think I actually know what I’m talking about, but I don’t like how he finishes. He gets a lead and it looks like something’s bothering him. He leaves putts 6 feet short seven or eight holes into a rainy day – that’s more of a tentative (or nervous) trait than slow greens.

As much improvement as Garcia has shown us in recent months, he still looks agitated by, and therefore vulnerable to, the quirks of competitive golf. The game is hard enough when your blood pressure is steady. If it’s bouncing all over the place? You finish T-37.

TAKE A CLOSE look at the new Web.com commercial featuring Jim and Tabitha Furyk. The ad is shot from two different viewpoints, and when husband and wife are shown at the same time, Tabitha’s hair is parted on the left. On the close-up shots of Tabitha, her hair is parted on the right.

Back to the wider angle – left to right. Another tight shot – right to left. These are the types of very important things you notice when you’re an experienced golf writer, or when you have a next-door neighbor with one of the keenest eyes in the game.

As for Jim, who isn’t wearing a hat, there is no such problem. No hair, no part to worry about, but the guy can move it left to right, or right to left, virtually upon command.

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Berger more than ready to rebound at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:54 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Daniel Berger hopes that this year he gets to be on the other end of a viral moment at the Travelers Championship.

Berger was a hard-luck runner-up last year at TPC River Highlands, a spectator as Jordan Spieth holed a bunker shot to defeat him in a playoff. It was the second straight year that the 25-year-old came up just short outside Hartford, as he carried a three-shot lead into the 2016 event before fading to a tie for fifth.

While he wasn’t lacking any motivation after last year’s close call, Berger got another dose last week at the U.S. Open when he joined Tony Finau as a surprise participant in the final group Sunday, only to shoot a 73 and drift to a T-6 finish.

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“It was one of the best experiences of my professional golf career so far. I feel like I’m going to be in such a better place next time I’m in that position, having felt those emotions and kind of gone through it,” Berger said. “There was a lot of reflection after that because I felt like I played good enough to get it done Sunday. I didn’t make as many putts as I wanted to, but I hit a lot of really good putts. And that’s really all you can do.”

Berger missed the cut earlier this month to end his quest for three straight titles in Memphis, but his otherwise consistent season has now included six top-20 finishes since January. After working his way into contention last week and still with a score to settle at TPC River Highlands, he’s eager to get back to work against another star-studded field.

“I think all these experiences you just learn from,” Berger said. “I think last week, having learned from that, I think that’s even going to make me a little better this week. So I’m excited to get going.”

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Rory tired of the near-misses, determined to close

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:46 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Rory McIlroy has returned to the Travelers Championship with an eye on bumping up his winning percentage.

McIlroy stormed from the back of the pack to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, but that remains his lone worldwide win since the 2016 Tour Championship. It speaks to McIlroy’s considerable ability and lofty expectations that, even with a number of other high finishes this season, he is left unsatisfied.

“I feel like I’ve had five realistic chances to win this year, and I’ve been able to close out one of them. That’s a bit disappointing, I guess,” McIlroy said. “But at least I’ve given myself five chances to win golf tournaments, which is much more than I did last year.”

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The most memorable of McIlroy’s near-misses is likely the Masters, when he played alongside Patrick Reed in Sunday’s final group but struggled en route to a T-5 finish. But more frustrating in the Ulsterman’s eyes were his runner-up at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, when he led by two shots with eight holes to go, and a second-place showing behind Francesco Molinari at the BMW PGA Championship in May.

“There’s been some good golf in there,” he said. “I feel like I let Dubai and Wentworth get away a little bit.”

He’ll have a chance to rectify that trend this week at TPC River Highlands, where he finished T-17 last year in his tournament debut and liked the course and the tournament enough to keep it on his schedule. It comes on the heels of a missed cut at the U.S. Open, when he was 10 over through 11 holes and never got on track. McIlroy views that result as more of an aberration during a season in which he has had plenty of chances to contend on the weekend.

“I didn’t necessarily play that badly last week. I feel like if I play similarly this week, I might have a good chance to win,” McIlroy said. “I think when you play in conditions like that, it magnifies parts of your game that maybe don’t stack up quite as good as the rest of your game, and it magnified a couple of things for me that I worked on over the weekend.”

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Sunday run at Shinnecock gave Reed even more confidence

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:08 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While many big names are just coming around to the notion that the Travelers Championship is worth adding to the schedule, Patrick Reed has been making TPC River Highlands one of his favorite haunts for years.

Reed will make his seventh straight appearance outside Hartford, where he tied for fifth last year and was T-11 the year before that. He is eager to get back to the grind after a stressful week at the U.S. Open, both because of his past success here and because it will offer him a chance to build on a near-miss at Shinnecock Hills.

Reed started the final round three shots off the lead, but he quickly stormed toward the top of the leaderboard and became one of Brooks Koepka’s chief threats after birdies on five of his first seven holes. Reed couldn’t maintain the momentum in the middle of the round, carding three subsequent bogeys, and ultimately tied for fourth.

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It was a bittersweet result, but Reed is focusing on the positives after taking a couple days to reflect.

“If you would have told me that I had a chance to win coming down Sunday, I would have been pleased,” Reed said. “I felt like I just made too many careless mistakes towards the end, and because of that, you’re not going to win at any major making careless mistakes, especially on Sunday.”

Reed broke through for his first major title at the Masters, and he has now finished fourth or better in three straight majors dating back to a runner-up at the PGA last summer. With another chance to add to that record next month in Scotland, he hopes to carry the energy from last week’s close call into this week’s event on a course where he feels right at home.

“It just gives me confidence, more than anything,” Reed said. “Of course I would have loved to have closed it out and win, but it was a great week all in all, and there’s a lot of stuff I can take from it moving forward. That’s how I’m looking at it.”

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Koepka back to work, looking to add to trophy collection

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 8:53 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Days after ensuring the U.S. Open trophy remained in his possession for another year, Brooks Koepka went back to work.

Koepka flew home to Florida after successfully defending his title at Shinnecock Hills, celebrating the victory Monday night with Dustin Johnson, Paulina Gretzky, swing coach Claude Harmon III and a handful of close friends. But he didn’t fully unwind because of a decision to honor his commitment to the Travelers Championship, becoming the first player to tee it up the week after a U.S. Open win since Justin Rose in 2013.

Koepka withdrew from the Travelers pro-am, but he flew north to Connecticut on Wednesday and arrived to TPC River Highlands around 3 p.m., quickly heading to the driving range to get in a light practice session.

“It still hasn’t sunk in, to be honest with you,” Koepka said. “I’m still focused on this week. It was just like, ‘All right, if I can get through this week, then I’m going to be hanging with my buddies next week.’ I know then maybe it’ll sink in, and I’ll get to reflect on it a little bit more.”

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Koepka’s plans next week with friends in Boston meant this week’s event outside Hartford made logistical sense. But he was also motivated to play this week because, plainly, he hasn’t had that many playing opportunities this year after missing nearly four months with a wrist injury.

“I’ve had so many months at home being on the couch. I don’t need to spend any more time on the couch,” Koepka said. “As far as skipping, it never crossed my mind.”

Koepka’s legacy was undoubtedly bolstered by his win at Shinnecock, as he became the first player in nearly 30 years to successfully defend a U.S. Open title. But he has only one other PGA Tour win to his credit, that being the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open, and his goal for the rest of the season is to make 2018 his first year with multiple trophies on the mantle.

“If you’re out here for more than probably 15 events, it gives you a little better chance to win a couple times. Being on the sidelines isn’t fun,” Koepka said. “Keep doing what we’re doing and just try to win multiple times every year. I feel like I have the talent. I just never did it for whatever reason. Always felt like we ran into a buzzsaw. So just keep plugging away.”