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Bubba back on top with newfound perspective

By Rex HoggardMarch 26, 2018, 12:30 am

AUSTIN, Texas – In 1958, the Georgia Bulldogs rolled into the Texas state capital with Fran Tarkenton at the helm.

Sixty years later, another Bulldog fared much better than the football Hall of Famer.

Tarkenton lost that season-opener, 13-8, which wasn’t a far cry from the beating Bubba Watson put on fellow Dawg Kevin Kisner in the finals of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.

Watson thumped his fellow alum, 7 and 6, at Austin Country Club.

It was the most lopsided rout since the Match Play went to 18-hole championship matches in 2011, and made for some bitter-sweet viewing for Chris Haack, who coached both Watson and Kisner at Georgia.

“Someone asked me who I was going to be rooting for and I said, ‘Georgia,’” Haack laughed.

But if Watson and Kisner both share an affinity for Athens, Ga., that’s where the similarities end.

Kisner is intense on the course and exceedingly grounded away from competition, while Watson is prone to bouts of mental lapses during rounds and let’s say, quirky behavior when he’s not carving drives into the great beyond.

Where Kisner seems to be made in a lab to play match play (Note to U.S. Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk, following victories for Kisner this week over match play “ninja” Ian Poulter and Alex Noren you may want to have him fitted for a team uniform now), Watson’s relationship with the format is something of a mixed bag. The same qualities that have now lifted the left-hander to his 11th PGA Tour title, often worked against him in college.

“That was probably his weakness, he had a go-for-broke mentality and instead of playing smart he’d stay aggressive and make a ‘7’ on a hole and keep from making the line-up,” Haack recalled. “Kisner never missed qualifying for a tournament, ever. Bubba did. He had to learn to be more conservative and gear back and he’s done a good job of that.”

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In seven previous trips to the Match Play, Watson made it to the weekend just twice, including his semifinal loss in 2011, and his fortunes didn’t seem to be improving when he halved his Day 3 pool play match with Julian Suri.

“Match play is not my favorite,” Watson said.

But he rebounded with a hard-fought 2-and-1 victory over Brian Harman in the Round of 16 and cruised to the final from there by defeating Justin Thomas, 3 and 2, who was the highest-seeded player to make the weekend.

Maybe that’s why this victory seemed so special to Watson. Five days, seven matches and 109 holes is a long time not to get distracted, particularly for Bubba.

For all the distractions that accompany the Tour’s most demanding test, all the potential pitfalls that are inherent to match play, all the reasons to figure that this might not be his week, Watson did what doesn’t always come naturally to him – he maintained his mental focus.

“His mind has just been great this year,” said Ted Scott, Watson’s caddie of 12 years. “Sometimes when you fall from the top, and he had some health issues and stuff, when you come back you’re like, OK, this isn’t the most important thing in my life. The hardest part is the world tries to label these guys as a golf score. The game of golf isn’t difficult for Bubba, it’s the extra stuff, the distractions can be difficult. For him, focus is just about not getting distracted.”

He wasn’t perfect at Austin Country Club, admitting that throughout the course of the week he only lost focus about four or five times, most notably on the par-4 13th hole in his semifinal match against Thomas.

“In my head, in my imagination, I kept seeing a slice driver catching the slopes and then just trickling on the green or right next to the green,” Watson explained. “So every day, even though that number is not even scary when it comes to me hitting a driver, in my head, I just panicked and I wasn't committed.”

But those concerns were few, and he proved extremely adept at playing his opponent and not allowing his aggressive tendencies to dictate an unwise and unneeded game plan. That was evident in the week’s final match when Kisner played his first four holes in 3 over par and made the turn 6 down. During that span, Watson was a conservative 1 under par.

“When you get a lead in match play the one thing you never want to do is give your opponent any sort of momentum. You want them to have to earn it,” Scott said. “He didn’t give many holes away for the week.”

If all this doesn’t exactly sound like the Bubba we’ve become familiar with over the years, it’s not too much of a stretch to declare that there has been an evolution. Some of this newfound perspective was born from 2017, when he hit rock bottom professionally.

He failed to win last season, failed to advance past the second round of the playoffs and told the world that he was going to step away from the game for a few months. It didn’t take nearly that long for him to rediscover the spark that made him a two-time Masters champion.

“Last year was the lowest point, I would have to say one of my lowest points in my life,” Watson said. “It just mentally, being an athlete is not easy.”

From those depths, Watson has now won twice on Tour in a little over a month and defied conventional wisdom with a victory at the Match Play, which is widely considered the game’s most mentally challenging marathon.

Sixty years ago, Tarkenton's squad came up short in Austin. Watson’s performance, by any measure, was so much better.

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Four players vying for DJ's No. 1 ranking at Open

By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 8:41 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Four players have an opportunity to overtake Dustin Johnson for world No. 1 this week.

According to Golf Channel world-rankings guru Alan Robinson, Justin Thomas, Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm each can grab the top spot in the world ranking.

Thomas’ path is the easiest. He would return to No. 1 with either a win and Johnson finishing worse than solo third, or even a solo runner-up finish as long as Johnson finishes worse than 49th.

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Twenty years after his auspicious performance in The Open, Rose can get to No. 1 for the first time with a victory and Johnson finishing worse than a two-way tie for third.

Kopeka can rise to No. 1 if he wins consecutive majors, assuming that his good friend posts worse than a three-way tie for third.

And Rahm can claim the top spot with a win this week, a Johnson missed cut and a Thomas finish of worse than solo second.   

Johnson’s 15-month reign as world No. 1 ended after The Players. He wasn’t behind Thomas for long, however: After a tie for eighth at the Memorial, Johnson blew away the field in Memphis and then finished third at the U.S. Open to solidify his position at the top.

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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.”

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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.