Blazer of glory: Spieth looking for second coat

By Rex HoggardApril 5, 2016, 9:09 pm

AUGUSTA, Ga. – At a place with more ceremonies than a Greek wedding it’s slightly anticlimactic that returning the most iconic symbol of major championship success is as unceremonial as hanging up a coat.

The coveted green jacket that golfers grow up wanting to win has never been far from Jordan Spieth the last 12 months. He’s traveled with it, he’s glanced at it, daily, in his closet, he’s even entertained friends and grilled with it on.

But Spieth’s run as Masters champion ends this week and with that passing goes the green jacket, which can now be worn only when he is on property at Augusta National unless he becomes the first player since Tiger Woods in 2002 to win back-to-back Masters.

Two weeks ago as he prepared to travel to the WGC-Dell Match Play, that reality sank in for Spieth.

“When I packed it to go down to Austin [Texas], I was like, wow, there's a possibility that I don't have this back at my house anymore when I was leaving home,” said Spieth, who has shown a refreshing amount of sentimentality in his young career. “It kind of fired me up a little bit. Just the jacket itself provides a little motivation, which is cool but at the same time, it's not easy.”

It’s not easy parting with his green jacket and it won’t be easy bringing it back home to Dallas, not if the oddsmakers are to be trusted.

Jason Day, who unseated Spieth atop the Official World Golf Ranking two weeks ago, is the favorite, which Spieth said was fine by him.

Inasmuch as a defending champion who blitzed Augusta National with an 18-under total for a wire-to-wire victory last spring can, Spieth is happy to be under the proverbial radar.

Spieth has, after all, not been his dominant self the past few months after opening his year with an eight-stroke victory at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions.

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Since Maui, his best Tour finish is a tie for ninth at the Match Play. After making an early run last Sunday at the Shell Houston Open that included four birdies in his first five holes, he faded into a tie for 13th place.

Against that backdrop Spieth begins his title defense with something less than his best stuff to those watching from outside the green punchbowl.

Just don’t tell the 22-year-old that.

“We know we're capable of playing this place. We have proven it to ourselves the last two years. So the focus is on this week, and we feel as confident as probably ever leading into at least on Tuesday,” Spieth said. “So my game actually feels better right now than I think it did last year on Tuesday.”

The record would suggest that Spieth is at least on par with his performances through the first six months of last season.

Heading down Magnolia Lane last year he had won once, a playoff victory at the Valspar Championship, and had just one missed cut, the same as this year.

Statistically, he is 62nd in driving distance this year (55th at this point last year), 79th in driving accuracy (101st in 2015) and fourth in birdie average (sixth).

Beyond the nuts and bolts of his season it’s the unquantifiable elements of Spieth’s game that seem to give him confidence going into this week’s event.

After winning the first two majors last year and coming within a stroke of adding the claret jug to his growing Grand Slam collection, Spieth has largely quieted the outside noise that comes with such success and focused his energies on the inside voices. 

“It's more the internal stuff that is trickier for me,” he said. “The only way it affects my golf is if I'm on the course and I feel like I'm giving strokes away and, therefore, I make an aggressive play that's unnecessary.”

Spieth also has history on his side.

Despite having played the Masters just twice he’s appeared to have the moves of a savvy veteran, avoiding the pitfalls both on and off the golf course the last two years and not allowing the enormity of the event to overcome him.

For Spieth, the familiarity is the byproduct of his early success when he finished runner-up to Bubba Watson in 2014.

“I think I was lucky that the first try, I wasn't trying as hard, and I think now I can just go back to the past couple years and draw off of that,” he said.

It’s that confidence, born from on-the-job experience, that helped temper his green jacket’s return to Augusta National this week, and why despite a chorus of concern over his recent form the moment was far from melancholy.

“I didn't take it for granted whatsoever,” Spieth said. “I think that I could have taken advantage of having it in my possession more than I did. But you learn and next time I'll do a little bit better.”

Next time.

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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, 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.  

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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?’”