And just like that, the Masters script is flipped

By Rex HoggardApril 7, 2017, 12:26 am

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Within a wind-whipped, 10-minute window the most pressing questions the golf world pondered in the days and weeks leading up to the year’s first major were, to varying degrees, answered.

Would Dustin Johnson live up to his status as the pre-Masters favorite? Well, no, but more on that later.

Would Jordan Spieth be haunted by the ghosts of the 2016 edition, which essentially ended when he rinsed two golf balls into the creek at the 12th hole? Again, nope, but even that answer was complicated.

Johnson never hit a shot that mattered following a dramatic warm up that ended when he arrived at the first tee and concluded that his ailing back wasn’t up to the Masters task.

The world No. 1 “seriously injured” his lower back on the eve of the first round when he fell on a staircase at the house he’s staying at this week. Overnight treatment, multiple trips to his physical therapist and the best of intentions weren’t enough to put DJ back together again and his withdrawal marked just the second time – the first was Tiger Woods in 2014 – the top-ranked player didn’t tee it up at the Masters.

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“I couldn't make a good backswing, every time right at impact it would just catch,” Johnson said. “So I just don't feel like there's any chance of me competing. It hurts.”

Spieth endured a pain of a different kind, just not where everyone figured it might happen.

Following a quadruple bogey-7 at the 12th hole during the final round last year, Spieth has spent the better part of 12 months being forced down a memory lane he’d just assume avoid, but on Thursday he finally had a chance to put some distance between himself and his meltdown in ’16. A well-played and safe shot right of the hole set up a two-putt par just moments after Johnson had started for the exit.

“I was a bit surprised at how loud the cheer was when my ball landed about 34 feet away from the hole,” Spieth laughed. “But I was relieved to see it down and on the green. I guess everybody else felt maybe more than I did on it.”

But as the 2015 Masters champion has learned in just three short years, Augusta National gives and takes with equal abandon.

Following his round, Fred Couples, who once again turned back the clock with an opening 73 that left him tied for 22nd, was asked about the par-5 15th hole, “There’ll be a lot of funny stories on that hole,” he said. After a quadruple bogey-9 at No. 15 on Thursday, Spieth wasn’t laughing.

After laying up, Spieth spun his third shot into a water hazard, sent his fifth shot over the green and he three-putted from 29 feet to drop to 4 over par.

“You think of it as a birdie hole, obviously being a par 5, unfortunately I still thought of it as a birdie hole today and it really isn't, when you layup,” said Spieth, who finished with a 75 for his worst round at the Masters. “So I didn't take my medicine, and hit it about 15 feet right with a club that takes the spin off.”

In less time than it takes to cross Washington Road, the most popular talking points heading into this week’s tournament – Spieth’s demons on the hole they call Golden Bell and DJ’s dominance – were essentially non-stories, overshadowed by the gritty play of a veteran who has exactly one top-10 finish in 22 major championship starts and a 37-year-old journeyman playing his first Masters.

At one point on a wild and windy day, two dozen players were tied for lead before Charley Hoffman, whose tie for ninth in ’15 at Augusta National is the highlight of an otherwise nondescript Grand Slam resume, pulled away with the kind of second-nine that is normally reserved for Sunday afternoons.

Hoffman birdied the 12th, 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th holes and his 7-under 65 left him four strokes clear of William McGirt, who is making his first start at the Masters and defied the norm with just a single bogey that left him alone in second place.

“There wasn't, I wouldn't say, a ton of pressure today. You're just trying to make ends meet really,” Hoffman said. “Obviously going to sleep on the lead at a major championship here at Augusta National is not going to be the easiest thing.”

After months of buildup, it certainly wasn’t what fans expected at the year’s first Grand Slam gathering; but in Johnson and Spieth’s defense they weren’t the only stars who didn’t exactly deliver on Day 1.

Rory McIlroy rallied to finish with an even-par 72 after making the turn in 3 over par, and Jason Day hit just 10 of 18 greens in regulation on his way to a 74. Put another way, at 57 years old Couples outplayed six of the top 10 players in the world ranking.

Some of the toughest conditions at the Masters since the opening round in 2007 had something to do with a leaderboard that didn’t go to script, and there are still 54 holes for the cosmic tumblers to fall back into their proper position, but there’s no denying that Day 1 didn’t go as expected for either the frontrunners or those whose expectations exceeded reality.

After 12 months of speculation and frenzied anticipation, it only took 10 minutes for everything to take a curious turn.

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Watch: Full replays of The Open coverage

By Golf Channel DigitalJuly 20, 2018, 12:55 pm

NBC Sports and Golf Channel are showcasing nearly 50 hours of live coverage of the 147th Open. Missed anything? Well, you can catch up right here. Click on the links below for replays from Carnoustie, broken down into daily segments:

Friday, Day 2 (Times ET)

1:30-8:20AM (Watch): On a rainy Friday morning at Carnoustie, Rory McIlroy shot 69 to reach 4 under, while Zach Johnson fired a 67 for the early lead. Click here or on the image below to watch.

Thursday, Day 1 (Times ET)

Noon-4PM (Watch): Tiger Woods was up and down in the afternoon, as winds picked up a little and no one could catch Kevin Kisner. Click here or on the image below to watch. Also, click here to watch the full replay of the early marquee group: Woods, Russell Knox and Hideki Matsuyama.

1:30-8:25AM (Watch): Defending champion Jordan Spieth got off to a good start, while Kevin Kisner (66) set the early pace. Click here or on the image below to watch. Also, click here to watch the full replay of the early marquee group: Rickie Fowler, Jon Rahm and Chris Wood.

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Fleetwood, with his fancy umbrella, fires 65 on Day 2

By Rex HoggardJuly 20, 2018, 12:34 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Tommy Fleetwood looked like an Open rookie when he set out on Friday under gray skies and a cold, steady rain.

Because the Englishman doesn’t have an equipment sponsor he made a quick turn through the merchandise tent for an umbrella – but at least he didn’t have to pay for it.

“We stole it,” he laughed when asked about his Open-brand umbrella. “We got one given for free, actually. We didn't steal it. We don't always carry an umbrella. So it just so happens this week that we've got a nice Open Championship [umbrella]. It looked quite nice, the yellow and the course.”

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

It was Fleetwood’s only rookie move on Day 2 at Carnoustie, posting a flawless 65 to move into an early tie for second place at 5 under par.

Fleetwood holds the competitive course record at Carnoustie, a 9-under 63 he shot last fall during the European Tour’s Dunhill Links Championship, but given Friday’s conditions and the difficulty of this course during The Open, his 65 on Friday might have been better.

“It's not a course record, but it's pretty good,” said Fleetwood, who was stroke behind leader Zach Johnson. “If you went out, you wouldn't really fancy being 6 under out there. So I think that's a good indication of how good it was.”

It was a dramatic turnaround for Fleetwood on Friday. He said he struggled with his ball-striking, specifically his tee shots, on Day 1, but he was able to turn things around with an hour-long session on the range following his opening round.

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Tiger Tracker: 147th Open Championship

By Tiger TrackerJuly 20, 2018, 10:15 am

Following an even-par 71 in the first round of the 147th Open Championship, Tiger Woods looks to make a move on Day 2 at Carnoustie.

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McIlroy responds to Harmon's 'robot' criticism

By Mercer BaggsJuly 20, 2018, 6:53 am

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Rory McIlroy said during his pre-championship news conference that he wanted to play more "carefree" – citing Jon Rahm’s approach now and the way McIlroy played in his younger days.

McIlroy got off to a good start Thursday at Carnoustie, shooting 2-under 69, good for a share of eighth place.

But while McIlroy admits to wanting to be a little less structured on the course, he took offense to comments made by swing coach Butch Harmon during a Sky Sports telecast.

Said Harmon:

“Rory had this spell when he wasn’t putting good and hitting the ball good, and he got so wrapped up in how he was going to do it he forgot how to do it.

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“He is one of the best players the game has ever seen. If he would just go back to being a kid and playing the way he won these championships and play your game, don’t have any fear or robotic thoughts. Just play golf. Just go do it.

“This is a young kid who’s still one of the best players in the world. He needs to understand that. Forget about your brand and your endorsement contracts. Forget about all that. Just go back to having fun playing golf. I still think he is one of the best in the world and can be No.1 again if he just lets himself do it.”

McIlroy, who has never worked with Harmon, responded to the comments when asked about them following his opening round.

“Look, I like Butch. Definitely, I would say I'm on the opposite end of the spectrum than someone that's mechanical and someone that's – you know, it's easy to make comments when you don't know what's happening,” McIlroy said. “I haven't spoken to Butch in a long time. He doesn't know what I'm working on in my swing. He doesn't know what's in my head. So it's easy to make comments and easy to speculate. But unless you actually know what's happening, I just really don't take any notice of it.”

McIlroy second round at The Open began at 2:52 a.m. ET.