After Troon heartbreak, Baltusrol just what Phil needs

By Rex HoggardJuly 26, 2016, 8:18 pm

SPRINGFIELD, N.J. – You could almost hear Rob Thomas harmonizing as Phil Mickelson made his painful play.

“This is it now

Everybody get down

This is all I can take

This is how a heart breaks”

- This is How a Heart Breaks

Lefty’s had his share of major heartbreaks. Just pick your poison. Maybe it’s the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion when he closed with a 74 to lose by two strokes; or at Winged Foot in ’06 when he signed for another final-round 74 to drop a one-stroke decision at his national championship.

But Royal Troon ... Royal Troon was different.

Mickelson played flawless golf in Scotland two Sundays ago. Bogey-free golf, which he will tell you isn’t something he does very often, in what was widely dubbed the “Duel in the Wind” with Henrik Stenson. He posted a closing-round 65 without a single “Phil” moment when everything has a tendency to go pear-shaped.

Three days earlier he’d come within a single rotation of rolling in a birdie on the 18th hole for the first 62 in major championship history. At the time he battled mixed emotions: “I just shot one of the greatest rounds ever and I want to cry,” he said.

The golf gods had decided it wasn’t Mickelson’s day and he moved on, but that Sunday loss to Stenson will not be as easily dismissed.

“I'll look back over time and my disappointment will probably increase, because I think it's the first time in my career that I have played to that level of golf and not had it be enough to win a tournament,” Mickelson said on Tuesday at the PGA Championship.

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Getting clipped by Justin Rose at Merion or Geoff Ogilvy at Winged Foot was one thing, the byproduct of largely self-inflicted wounds that have come to define the risk-taking southpaw. But the outcome of this year’s Open felt as if it was out of his hands, a new dynamic that was not of his making.

At 46, Mickelson has steeled himself against the inevitable doubts and internal critiques that normally follow a loss that defies easy explanation.

There will be a time when Phil will reflect on Royal Troon, probably fondly, but those moments can wait. The People’s Champion who won his second major at Baltusrol in 2005 doesn’t have the time or luxury for reflection just yet.

That determination to stay on topic was evident when he was asked about the perceived narrow window he has to win majors. Mickelson bristled.

“I don't believe that there is a small window. I think there's a really big window of opportunity to add to my resume, to continue to compete in big events,” he said. “There's a really big window of opportunity to have some success. I'm having more fun playing because of it.”

There is a bit of symmetry to Mickelson’s decision to leave Royal Troon unexamined. When he arrived at the ’05 PGA he was more than a year removed from his first major victory, and had dropped close calls at the ’04 U.S. Open and Open. He was looking to further a career that was, at least in the biggest events, just getting started.

He immediately liked Baltusrol, a traditional East Coast venue with thick rough and pushed up greens. Loved the area and made Joe’s Pizzeria, just a few well-played 3-woods the other side of Interstate-78, a staple in his dietary rotation.

“I had said going in that when I win one, that I'm going to win multiple; it wasn't going to be just a one-and-done,” Mickelson said. “I needed to come back, in a fairly short time period and validate that first win.”

Similarly, the alternative to revisiting his loss to Stenson at The Open is to fixate on the next mountain, in this case this week’s PGA Championship.

He arrived late last week in the area for a corporate outing followed by a charity function on Saturday before getting back to work relearning Baltusrol after an 11-year hiatus.

Idle hands and all.

Unlike in ’05, the often-wayward Mickelson plans to play Baltusrol strategically this week, trading power for precision with an action he and swing coach Andrew Getson have made more consistent as evidenced by his play two weeks ago in Scotland.

“We have big tournaments coming up right now and because I am playing well, I don't want to let an opportunity, another really good opportunity that I have to play a PGA Championship here at Baltusrol at a course I like, while my game is sharp, and let the effects or disappointment linger,” he said.

The alternative would be to drill down on what went wrong at Royal Troon, and time will probably reveal that some heartbreaks simply can’t be explained.

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Tiger Tracker: 147th Open Championship

By Tiger TrackerJuly 20, 2018, 2:30 pm

Tiger Woods shot his second consecutive 70 on Friday at Carnoustie and enters weekend play at even par for the championship, still in contention for major No. 15.

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Scott and Sunesson a one-week partnership

By Rex HoggardJuly 20, 2018, 2:13 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Adam Scott has been in between caddies for the last month and went with a bold stand-in for this week’s Open Championship, coaxing veteran looper Fanny Sunesson out of retirement to work for him at Carnoustie.

Sunesson caddied for Nick Faldo in his prime, as the duo won four major titles together. She also worked for Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia before a back injury forced her to retire.

But for this week’s championship, Scott convinced the Swede to return to the caddie corps. The results have been impressive, with the Australian following an opening 71 with a second-round 70 for a tie for 16th place.

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“It's been going great. Fanny is, obviously, a fantastic caddie, and to be able to have that experience out there with me is certainly comforting,” Scott said. “We've gotten along really well. She's picked up on my game quickly, and I think we think about things in a very similar way.”

Scott was also asked about a potential long-term partnership between the duo, but he didn’t sound hopeful.

“It's just for this week,” he said. “It would be up to her, but I don't think she's making plans of a comeback. I was being a bit opportunistic in contacting her and coaxing her out of retirement, I guess. But I think she's having a good week. We'll just take it one week at the moment.”

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After tense Augusta Sunday, Rory ready to be aggressive

By Ryan LavnerJuly 20, 2018, 1:51 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Rory McIlroy temporarily lost his superpowers during the Masters.  

In one of the most surprising rounds of the year, he played tentatively and carefully during the final day. Squaring off against the major-less Patrick Reed, on the brink of history, with the backing of nearly the entire crowd, it was McIlroy who shrank in the moment, who looked like the one searching for validation. He shot a joyless 74 and wound up six shots behind Reed.

No, the final round was nowhere near as dispiriting as the finale in 2011, but McIlroy still sulked the following week. He binge-watched TV shows. Devoured a few books. Guzzled a couple of bottles of wine. His pity party lasted a few days, until his wife, Erica, finally dragged him out of the house for a walk.

Some deeper introspection was required, and McIlroy revealed a healthier self-analysis Friday at Carnoustie. He diagnosed what went wrong at Augusta, and then again two months later at the U.S. Open, where he blew himself out of the tournament with an opening 80.

“I was worrying too much about the result, not focusing on the process,” he said. “Sunday at Augusta was a big learning curve for me because, even if I hadn’t won that tournament, but I went down swinging and aggressive and committing to every shot, I would have walked away a lot happier.”

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

And so McIlroy has a new mantra this week at The Open.

Let it go.

Don’t hold back. Don’t worry about the repercussions. Don’t play scared.

“I’m committed to making sure, even if I don’t play my best golf and don’t shoot the scores I want, I’m going to go down swinging, and I’m going to go down giving my best,” he said. “The result is the byproduct of all the little things you do to lead up to that. Sometimes I’ve forgotten that, and I just need to get back in that mindset.”

It’s worked through two rounds, even after the cool, damp conditions led McIlroy to abandon his ultra-aggressive strategy. He offset a few mistakes with four birdies, shooting a second consecutive 69 to sit just a couple of shots off the lead.

During a sun-splashed first round, McIlroy gleefully banged driver on almost every hole, flying or skirting the bunkers that dot these baked-out, undulating fairways. He wasn’t particularly accurate, but he also didn’t need to be, as the thin, wispy rough enabled every player to at least advance their approach shots near the green.

Friday’s weather presented a different challenge. A steady morning rain took some of the fire out of parched fairways, but the cooler temperatures also reduced much of the bombers’ hang time. Suddenly, all of the bunkers were in play, and McIlroy needed to adjust his driver-heavy approach (he hit only six) on the fly.

“It just wasn’t worth it,” he said.

McIlroy hit a few “skanky” shots, in his words, but even his bigger misses – on the sixth and 17th holes – were on the proper side, allowing him to scramble for par and keep the round going.

It’s the fifth time in his career that he’s opened a major with back-to-back rounds in the 60s. He’s gone on to win three of the previous four – the lone exception that disastrous final round (80) at Augusta in 2011.

“I don’t want to say easy,” he said, “but it’s felt comfortable.”

The weekend gets uncomfortable for everyone, apparently even four-time major winners who, when in form, ooze confidence and swagger.

Once again McIlroy has that look at a major.

The only thing left to do?

Let it go.

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Z. Johnson may have to pay for the jet home

By Rex HoggardJuly 20, 2018, 1:23 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Zach Johnson will have some bragging rights when he gets back to the ultimate golf frat house on Friday after a second-round 67 moved him into the lead at The Open.

Johnson is rooming with Jordan Spieth, Jason Dufner, Kevin Kisner, Jimmy Walker, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler this week at Carnoustie. It’s a tradition that began two years ago at Royal Troon.

Kisner joked on Thursday after he took the first-round lead that the perks for the house/tournament front-runner were limited: “I probably get to eat first,” he said.

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

There is, however, one running wager.

“Two years ago we, I don't know if you call it bet, but agreement that, if you win, you get the jet and you buy it, so we go home,” said Johnson, who added that because of varying travel arrangements, the wager might not be needed this year. “I didn't pay last year. Somebody else did.”

Spieth won last year’s championship at Royal Birkdale.

Despite the expense, Johnson said he didn’t know how much it costs to charter a private flight back to the United States, but it’s a good problem to have.

“I’d be happy to fork it over,” he smiled.