With a 2-iron, Ariya climbed out of golfing hell

By Randall MellMarch 30, 2017, 12:12 am

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – When Ariya Jutanugarn first pulled 2-iron from her bag, sparks should have flown.

A choir of angels should have broken into song.

It was like King Arthur drawing Excalibur from the stone.

Something wondrous began happening when Jutanugarn discovered the enchanting qualities this relic from a bygone era possessed.

All those demon doubts haunting her on tee boxes, Jutanugarn started slaying them with this new weapon.

She used it to fight her way out of golfing hell.

The 2-iron made its way into Jutanugarn’s bag two summers ago, when she was mired in a slump that would see her miss 10 consecutive cuts. Back then, fellow players were whispering things no player wants spoken about her. They were whispering that Jutanugarn might have the “driving yips.”

With Jutanugarn returning to the ANA Inspiration this week, the focus is on how far she has come since collapsing over the final three holes last year. Her story is about how quickly she bounced back to win three straight LPGA titles in May. She went on to claim five titles overall last year and win the Rolex Player of the Year Award.

Vision 54’s Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott were vital in helping Jutanugarn rebound as her mental coaches. So was Gary Gilchrist, her swing coach.

Her bounce back, though, actually began before the ANA last year.

Really, Jutanugarn’s rebound started the day her caddie, Les Luark, introduced her to a TaylorMade RSI 2-iron back in the summer of 2015. He put the sword in her bag. She used it to pierce the darkness, to slash open the first splintering rays of light showing her the way out of her terrible slump.

“The 2-iron has been awesome for Ariya,” Marriott said. “Kudos to Les for coming up with it.’

Luark began caddying for Jutanugarn amid her slump in ’15. After a shoulder injury, which required surgery and a troublingly long recovery, Jutanugarn swooned. It was stunning how far she fell, because she was such a can’t-miss phenom before.

The injury changed her swing. She changed it to avoid lingering pain, but she began hitting her driver all over the planet. The malady spread, moving through the rest of her game.

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Luark saw that as soon as he picked up Jutanugarn’s bag.

“She was so focused around her tee-shot issues,” Luark said. “She couldn’t do anything else. She couldn’t practice anything else, or focus on anything else.

“So, just getting to where she had some confidence on the tee, that allowed her to start looking at the other parts of her game. It got her started going in the direction that led to her winning last year. Without the 2-iron, I don’t know if she would have gotten to that stage, at least not as quickly as she did.”

Jutanugarn, 21 now, didn’t want to play the ShopRite Classic in 2015, because the course was too claustrophobic for her. That’s why Luark suggested the 2-iron. He saw how comfortably she hit her 3-iron, and he went to TaylorMade to have the equipment crew shape a 2-iron for her. She teed it up at ShopRite and was pleasantly surprised how far she could hit that 2-iron, even though she missed yet another cut there.

Jutanugarn didn’t immediately shake her slump or quit missing cuts, but there was finally a building block. There was hope.

“A couple weeks using it, the 2-iron was her favorite club,” Luark said.

Who has a 2-iron as a favorite club?

Actually, who else even hits a 2-iron in the women’s game?

Laura Davies might be it.

Luark says Jutanugarn fretted when he checked her golf bag overnight into the clubhouse storage room at the Kia Classic last week. She hates leaving it anywhere overnight. She worried about arriving in the morning to find the 2-iron was gone.

“I don’t think I could play if it wasn’t there,” she told Luark.

It was there.

“It’s a go-to club she can trust,” Nilsson said. “She knows she can always put it in play.”

Jutanugarn doesn’t just put it in play. She bombs it. Luark estimates she is carrying it 230 yards this week, and that on firm fairways it can run out to 270 yards. That’s longer than most players will hit their drivers this week.

It’s part of the reason Jutanugarn won’t carry a driver again this week. She hasn’t put driver in her bag for a tournament round the entire year. Still, she can belt her 3-wood past most players’ drivers and hit her 2-iron with a lot of players’ drivers.

Plus, Jutanugarn hits 2-iron so straight.

“I really like it, because I feel like I can control it,” Jutanugarn said. “When I want to hit it in the fairway, I feel comfortable with the 2-iron.”

Gilchrist says Jutanugarn’s miss comes when she gets too steep with her swing. She hits down so hard on the ball. It’s why her iron play is so strong but she struggled with the driver.

The thing is, Jutanugarn is hitting a lot of drivers in practice and pro-ams now. She’s a lot more comfortable with it again, and more tempted to put it in play.

“When Yani Tseng was No. 1, she would hit her driver 30 yards past the average player,” Gilchrist said. “Ariya can hit her driver 20 yards past Yani. That’s insane.”

But, Gilchrist is in no rush to push the driver on Jutanugarn.

“Ariya could make twice as much money as she does if she started hitting driver, because she would become this long-hitting phenomenon,” Gilchrist said. “People would think it’s unbelievable how far this woman’s hitting the ball, but if you’ve got a winning formula, why change it? There’s a risk. If you lose your confidence, nobody’s talking about you at all.”

Jutanugarn’s formula has her on the verge of becoming the No. 1 player in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings. A victory this week gets her there. And an enchanting 2-iron helped set this all up.

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Schauffele just fine being the underdog

By Rex HoggardJuly 21, 2018, 8:06 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Following a breakthough season during which he won twice and collected the PGA Tour Rookie of the Year Award, Xander Schauffele concedes his sophomore campaign has been less than stellar, but that could all change on Sunday at The Open.

Schauffele followed a second-round 66 with a 67 on Saturday to take a share of the 9-under-par lead with Jordan Spieth and Kevin Kisner.

Although he hasn’t won in 2018, he did finish runner-up at The Players and tied for sixth at the U.S. Open, two of the year’s toughest tests.

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“Growing up, I always hit it well and played well in tough conditions,” Schauffele said. “I wasn't the guy to shoot 61. I was the guy to shoot like 70 when it was playing really hard.”

Sunday’s pairing could make things even more challenging when he’ll head out in the day’s final tee time with Spieth, the defending champion. But being the underdog in a pairing, like he was on Saturday alongside Rory McIlroy, is not a problem.

“All the guys I've talked to said, 'Live it up while you can, fly under the radar,'” he said. “Today I played in front of what you call Rory's crowd and guys were just yelling all the time, even while he's trying to putt, and he had to step off a few times. No one was yelling at me while I was putting. So I kind of enjoy just hanging back and relaxing.”

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Open odds: Spieth 7/1 to win; Tiger, Rory 14/1

By Golf Channel DigitalJuly 21, 2018, 7:54 pm

Only 18 holes remain in the 147th Open Championship at Carnoustie, and the man tied atop the leaderboard is the same man who captured the claret jug last year at Royal Birkdale.

So it’s little surprise that Jordan Spieth is the odds-on favorite (7/4) to win his fourth major entering Sunday’s final round.

Xander Schauffele and Kevin Kisner, both tied with Spieth at 9 under par, are next in line at 5/1 and 11/2 respectively. Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, both four shots behind the leaders, are listed at 14/1.

Click here for the leaderboard and take a look below at the odds, courtesy Jeff Sherman at golfodds.com.

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

Jordan Spieth: 7/4

Xander Schauffele: 5/1

Kevin Kisner: 11/2

Tiger Woods: 14/1

Francesco Molinari: 14/1

Rory McIlroy: 14/1

Kevin Chappell: 20/1

Tommy Fleetwood: 20/1

Alex Noren: 25/1

Zach Johnson: 30/1

Justin Rose: 30/1

Matt Kuchar: 40/1

Webb Simpson: 50/1

Adam Scott: 80/1

Tony Finau: 80/1

Charley Hoffman: 100/1

Austin Cook: 100/1

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Spieth stands on brink of Open repeat

By Rex HoggardJuly 21, 2018, 7:49 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Jordan Spieth described Monday’s “ceremony” to return the claret jug to the keepers of the game’s oldest championship as anything but enjoyable.

For the last 12 months the silver chalice has been a ready reminder of what he was able to overcome and accomplish in 2017 at Royal Birkdale, a beacon of hope during a year that’s been infinitely forgettable.

By comparison, the relative pillow fight this week at Carnoustie has been a welcome distraction, a happy-go-lucky stroll through a wispy field. Unlike last year’s edition, when Spieth traveled from the depths of defeat to the heights of victory within a 30-minute window, the defending champion has made this Open seem stress-free, easy even, by comparison.

But then those who remain at Carnoustie know it’s little more than a temporary sleight of hand.

As carefree as things appeared on Saturday when 13 players, including Spieth, posted rounds of 67 or lower, as tame as Carnoustie, which stands alone as The Open’s undisputed bully, has been through 54 holes there was a foreboding tension among the rank and file as they readied for a final trip around Royal Brown & Bouncy.

“This kind of southeast or east/southeast wind we had is probably the easiest wind this golf course can have, but when it goes off the left side, which I think is forecasted, that's when you start getting more into the wind versus that kind of cross downwind,” said Spieth, who is tied for the lead with Xander Schauffele and Kevin Kisner at 9 under par after a 6-under 65. “It won't be the case tomorrow. It's going to be a meaty start, not to mention, obviously, the last few holes to finish.”

Carnoustie only gives so much and with winds predicted to gust to 25 mph there was a distinct feeling that playtime was over.

As melancholy as Spieth was about giving back the claret jug, and make no mistake, he wasn’t happy, not even his status among the leading contenders with a lap remaining was enough for him to ignore the sleeping giant.

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

But then he’s come by his anxiousness honestly. Spieth has spent far too much time answering questions about an inexplicably balky putter the last few weeks and he hasn’t finished better than 21st since his “show” finish in April at the Masters.

After a refreshingly solid start to his week on Thursday imploded with a double bogey-bogey-par-bogey finish he appeared closer to an early ride home on Friday than he did another victory lap, but he slowly clawed his way back into the conversation as only he can with one clutch putt after the next.

“I'm playing golf for me now. I've kind of got a cleared mind. I've made a lot of progress over the year that's been kind of an off year, a building year,” said Spieth, who is bogey-free over his last 36 holes. “And I've got an opportunity to make it a very memorable one with a round, but it's not necessary for me to prove anything for any reason.”

But if an awakened Carnoustie has Spieth’s attention, the collection of would-be champions assembled around and behind him adds another layer of intrigue.

Kisner, Spieth’s housemate this week on Angus coast, has led or shared the lead after each round this week and hasn’t shown any signs of fading like he did at last year’s PGA Championship, when he started the final round with a one-stroke lead only to close with a 74 to tie for seventh place.

“I haven't played it in that much wind. So I think it's going to be a true test, and we'll get to see really who's hitting it the best and playing the best tomorrow,” said Kisner, who added a 68 to his total on Day 3.

There’s no shortage of potential party crashers, from Justin Rose at 4 under after a round-of-the-week 64 to 2015 champion Zach Johnson, who also made himself at home with Spieth and Kisner in the annual Open frat house and is at 5 under.

Rory McIlroy, who is four years removed from winning his last major championship, looked like a player poised to get off the Grand Slam schneid for much of the day, moving to 7 under with a birdie at the 15th hole, but he played the last three holes in 2 over par and is tied with Johnson at 5 under par. 

And then there’s Tiger Woods. For three magical hours the three-time Open champion played like he’d never drifted into the dark competitive hole that’s defined his last few years. Like he’d never been sidelined by an endless collection of injuries and eventually sought relief under the surgeon’s knife.

As quietly as Woods can do anything, he turned in 3 under par for the day and added two more birdies at Nos. 10 and 11. His birdie putt at the 14th hole lifted him temporarily into a share of the lead at 6 under par.

“We knew there were going to be 10, 12 guys with a chance to win on Sunday, and it's turning out to be that,” said Woods, who is four strokes off the lead. “I didn't want to be too far back if the guys got to 10 [under] today. Five [shots back] is certainly doable, and especially if we get the forecast tomorrow.”

Woods held his round of 66 together with a gritty par save at the 18th hole after hitting what he said was his only clunker of the day off the final tee.

Even that episode seemed like foreshadowing.

The 18th hole has rough, bunkers, out of bounds and a burn named Barry that weaves its way through the hole like a drunken soccer fan. It’s the Grand Slam of hazardous living and appears certain to play a leading role in Sunday’s outcome.

Perhaps none of the leading men will go full Jean Van de Velde, the star-crossed Frenchman who could still be standing in that burn if not for a rising tide back at the 1999 championship, but if the 499 yards of dusty turf is an uninvited guest, it’s a guest nonetheless.

It may not create the same joyless feelings that he had when he returned the claret jug, but given the hole’s history and Spieth’s penchant for late-inning histrionics (see Open Championship, 2017), the 18th hole is certain to produce more than a few uncomfortable moments.

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Wandering photographer costs McIlroy on 16

By Ryan LavnerJuly 21, 2018, 7:44 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Rory McIlroy bogeyed two of his last four holes Saturday to fall four shots off the lead at The Open.

One of those mistakes might not have entirely been his fault.

McIlroy missed a short putt on the par-3 16th after a photographer was “in a world all his own,” wandering around near the green, taking photos of the crowd and not paying attention to the action on the green.

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“It’s fine,” McIlroy said after a third-round 70 put him at 5-under 208, four shots off the lead. “It’s one of those things that happens. There’s a lot of people out there, and it is what it is. It’s probably my fault, but I just didn’t regroup well after it happened.”

McIlroy also bogeyed the home hole, after driving into a fairway bunker, sending his second shot right of the green and failing to get up and down.

“I putted well,” he said. “I holed out when I needed to. I just need to make the birdies and try to limit the damage tomorrow.”