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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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.

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

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, 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.