A tournament unlike any other in women's golf

By Randall MellApril 2, 2014, 9:41 pm

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – They don’t drape their champions in green jackets here.

They cloak them in white robes to keep them warm after their triumphant leaps into Poppie’s Pond.

The Kraft Nabisco Championship may not be the Masters, but the traditions and history built over time have created a familiarity that most parallels it in the women’s game.

Mission Hills Country Club may not be Augusta National, but like the iconic course Bobby Jones built in Georgia, the Dinah Shore Course is now built on more than soil. It’s built on a foundation of memories.

With snow-capped mountains as a majestic backdrop, every single player in this field of 111 will tee it up Thursday dreaming of making that victor’s leap into the water beside the 18th green. It’s a tradition Hall of Famer Amy Alcott started when she leaped into the pond after winning in ’88.

“You can’t even understate it,” Rolex world No. 3 Stacy Lewis said of the special history for women here. “For me, when I think of a major, I think of this event. I think of the tradition, the history.”

There’s more than a trophy and a big check for the winner here. There’s the palpable feeling of golf immortality that goes with them. Every player who reaches the 18th green here gets there via the Walk of Champions, a pathway where every winner is celebrated with a plaque. From the first winner, Jane Blalock in 1972, to the last, Inbee Park a year ago, they’re remembered on a wall on the walk.

The finish is a celebration of women’s golf.

“It’s the place everybody can’t wait to go to,” said Karen Stupples, winner of the ’04 Women’s British Open. “You play your practice rounds, and you want to make that jump. Everybody plays the practice rounds with a view toward Poppie’s Pond. It’s a really special place for the players.”

The plaques along the Walk of Champions speak volumes to the test the Dinah Shore Course offers. Mickey Wright, Kathy Whitworth, Pat Bradley, Nancy Lopez, Judy Rankin, Donna Caponi, Amy Alcott, Betsy King, Juli Inkster, Annika Sorenstam and Karrie Webb are among the Hall of Famers who have won here.

Kraft Nabisco Championship: Articles, videos and photos

“The tournament brings back so many memories,” Anna Nordqvist said. “Playing the 18th today in the pro-am, I remembered Karrie Webb’s shot [holing out for eagle in ‘06]. There have been so many good jumps in that pond. All the memories, I want to make my own memories there.”

Dinah Shore, a popular singer in the Big Band era of ‘40s and ‘50s who also became an actress, founded the event and was its host. The tournament started in 1972 as the Colgate-Dinah Shore Winner’s Circle. Shore hosted it until her death in ’94. Her name stayed on the event until 2000, and her presence still lingers here. A statue of her sits at the end of the Walk of Champions.

“The Dinah” is what tour veterans still call the championship today.

Kraft Nabisco is departing as the title sponsor after this year’s event. The company has been associated with the championship since 1982. While there is always some angst when a title sponsor leaves, LPGA commissioner Mike Whan has stated in strong terms that he intends to keep the event here. The LPGA takes control of it going forward.

“It definitely needs to stay here,” Webb said. “There's too much history and too much tradition here. If the LPGA lacks anything, in any other events, it's that.”

Rankin, who won this event in ’76, is confident the history and traditions will sell themselves.

“Corporately, there's this sense that everything will be OK, because it's such a magnificent product in women’s golf,” Rankin said. “It is the one product that people around the country who are fans of golf know. They know the golf course, they know the drill, and they know that it is prior to the Masters. It has a familiarity like Augusta does, where people know the holes that are coming up, and this, that and the other.”

Nordqvist has only played this event since 2010, but she says she knows the course “off the top of my head.” She knows the mysterious “Indio effect,” the force that pulls putts toward the city of Indio in the Coachella Valley.

There’s more to the traditions than what happens on the course. There’s the Champions Dinner on Monday night and equally meaningful casual dinners at favorite spots players return to every year.

Webb’s favorite stop is LG’s Steakhouse.

“I always take whoever I have in town, my caddie, my physio, my whole team,” Webb said. “We have a nice steak dinner and a nice bottle of wine.”

Inkster won here twice. She said she has come to treasure the event more with every passing year.

“This is probably my favorite tournament of the whole year,” Inkster said. “It's just a special week.”

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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.

Getty Images

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?’”

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Rory looking for that carefree inner-child

By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 1:28 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Eleven years later, Rory McIlroy cringes at the photo: the yellow sweater with the deep V-neck, the chubby cheeks and the messy mop that curled under his cap.

“You live and you learn,” he said Wednesday, offering a wry smile.

The last time McIlroy played at a Carnoustie Open, in 2007, he earned the Silver Medal as the low amateur. He tied for 42nd, but the final result had mattered little. Grateful just to have a spot in the field, courtesy of his European Amateur title, he bounced along the fairways, soaking up every moment, and lingered behind the 18th green as one of his local heroes, Padraig Harrington, battled one of his favorite players, Sergio Garcia. Waiting for the trophy presentation, he passed the time playing with Padraig’s young son, Paddy. On Wednesday, McIlroy spotted Paddy, now 15, walking around Carnoustie with his three-time-major-winning father.

“He’s massive now – he towers over me,” he said. “It’s so funny thinking back on that day.”

But it’s also instructive. If there’s a lesson to be learned from ’07, it’s how carefree McIlroy approached and played that week. He was reminded again of that untroubled attitude while playing a practice round here with 23-year-old Jon Rahm, who stepped onto each tee, unsheathed his driver and bombed away with little regard for the wind or the bounce or the fescue. McIlroy smiled, because he remembers a time, not too long ago, that he’d attack a course with similar reckless abandon.

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“I just think, as you get older, you get a little more cautious in life,” said McIlroy, 29. “I think it’s only natural. There’s something nice about being young and being oblivious to some stuff. The more I can get into that mindset, the better I’ll play golf.”

And so on the eve of this Open, as he approaches the four-year anniversary of his last major title, McIlroy finds himself searching for a way to channel that happy-go-lucky 18-year-old who was about to take the world by storm, to tap into the easygoing excellence that once defined his dominance.

It’s been a year since he first hinted at what he’s been missing. Last year’s Open at Royal Birkdale was the final event of his long run with caddie J.P. Fitzgerald. The chief reason for the split, he said, had nothing to do with some of the questionable on-course decisions, but rather a desire to take ownership of him game, to be freed up alongside one of his best friends, Harry Diamond.

That partnership has produced only one victory so far, and over the past few months, McIlroy has at times looked unsettled between the ropes. It’s difficult to compute, how someone with seemingly so much – a résumé with four majors, a robust bank account, a beautiful wife – can also appear disinterested and unmotivated.

“I think sometimes I need to get back to that attitude where I play carefree and just happy to be here,” he said. “A golf tournament is where I feel the most comfortable. It’s where I feel like I can 100 percent be myself and express myself. Sometimes the pressure that’s put on the top guys to perform at such a level every week, it starts to weigh on you a little bit. The more I can be like that kid, the better.”

It’s a decidedly different landscape from when the erstwhile Boy Wonder last won a major, in summer 2014. Jordan Spieth had won just a single Tour event, not three majors. Dustin Johnson wasn’t world No. 1 but merely a tantalizing tease, a long-hitting, fast-living physical freak who was just beginning a six-month break to address "personal challenges." Two-time U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka hadn’t even started playing in the States.  

McIlroy’s greatest asset, both then and now, was his driving – he put on clinics at Congressional and Kiawah, Hoylake and Valhalla. He was a mainstay at or near the top of the strokes gained: tee to green rankings, but over the past few years, because of better technology, fitness and coaching, the gap between him and the rest of the field has shrunk.

“I think at this stage players have caught up,” Harrington said. “There’s many players who drive the ball comparable and have certainly eaten into that advantage. Rory is well on pace to get into double digits with majors, but it has got harder. There’s no doubt there’s more players out there who are capable of having a big week and a big game for a major. It makes it tough.”

It’s not as though McIlroy hasn’t had opportunities to add to his major haul; they’ve just been less frequent and against stronger competition. In the 13 majors since he last won, he’s either finished in the top 10 or missed the cut in 11 of them. This year, he played in the final group at the Masters, and was on the verge of completing the career Grand Slam, before a soul-crushing 74 on the last day. His U.S. Open bid was over after nine holes, after an opening 80 and a missed cut during which he declined to speak to reporters after both frustrating rounds.

“I’m trying,” he said Wednesday. “I’m trying my best every time I tee it up, and it just hasn’t happened.”

A year after saying that majors are the only events that will define the rest of his career, he recently shrugged off the doom and gloom surrounding his Grand Slam drought: “It doesn’t keep me up at night, thinking, If I never won another major, I can’t live with myself.”

Eleven years ago, McIlroy never would have troubled himself with such trivial questions about his legacy. But perhaps a return to Carnoustie, to where his major career started, is just what he needs to unlock his greatness once again.