Confidence man: Harrington willed '08 win at Birkdale

By Rex HoggardJuly 17, 2017, 11:00 am

When The Open gets underway on Thursday at Royal Birkdale there will be no shortage of lessons to be gleaned from the last time the game’s oldest major was played on the English links.

After winning the claret jug in 2007, Padraig Harrington arrived early the next year to fulfill his duties as reigning Champion Golfer of the Year, but didn’t hit a full shot until he set out on Thursday because of an injury. He endured a brutal start in even worse conditions and, like most of the field, was a competitive afterthought until late on Sunday.

It may have been a magical 5-wood that sealed the victory for Harrington in ’08, but it was his mind that made that shot possible.

“I felt I was favored,” Harrington said. “The media wanted a fairytale story with Greg [Norman]; I was aware of that and I’d recently played with Greg, knew what a great player he was, but I felt like this was my tournament.”

Although Harrington’s confidence was understandable – he was the defending champion, after all – his week at the ’08 championship didn’t exactly get off to a fairytale start.

He was nursing a right-wrist injury when he arrived at Birkdale, hadn’t seriously contended since his major breakthrough a year earlier at Carnoustie and could only chip and putt to prepare right up until his Day 1 tee time. But in his signature idiosyncratic way, the Irishman never doubted his ability or his chances.

“I’m a great believer a lot of times with injuries you’re better off playing with them. A lot of times the adrenaline of a tournament can get you through,” he said. “I just didn’t know anything that would happen. It took a lot of stress off me and a lot of pressure off me.”

He maintained that outlook even when he set out on Thursday in what some still consider the worst conditions in recent Open memory.

Harrington, playing in the early wave, started his title defense with a bogey at his first hole and closed his round with back-to-back bogeys for a 4-over 74, which normally would be a reason to start planning for a short week.

“I don’t watch the golf, but I was walking by the TV room and Adam Scott was knocking it onto the 15th in two [shots] and it had taken three woods when I played it in the morning so I nearly put my foot through the TV,” he said.

Just six players managed rounds at or under par on Day 1 in ’08 – with Robert Allenby, Graeme McDowell and Rocco Mediate leading the way with 69s – and the scoring average on Thursday was 75.87. Birkdale would rank as the toughest course on the PGA Tour by more than a half stroke that season.

“I shanked it out of bounds on the first,” recalled Paul Casey, who tied for seventh. “It was awful. I thought how can we be playing in this, when is the horn going to blow? It never happened.”

Harrington endured, however, and when Sunday arrived he was tied for second place, two strokes behind Norman, who at 53 was the oldest player to hold at least a share of the 54-hole lead at The Open.

The nostalgia of Norman’s run didn’t last long, with the Australian opening with three consecutive bogeys on his way to a 77 and a tie for third.

Ian Poulter, who teed off nearly an hour before Harrington on Sunday, quickly set the new mark with a closing 69, one of just six under-par cards on Day 4 and a round that included the most Poulter-esque of finishes.

One stroke clear of the field playing the 72nd hole, the Englishman followed a poor tee shot with a mediocre recovery and chipped to 8 feet for par.

“We all think, and so does Ian, [the par putt] is to win The Open,” Casey said. “So he looks at his putt and he goes to [caddie Terry Mundy], ‘Terry, come here.’ Terry is like, he hasn’t called me in all week to read a putt and now he’s calling me in so when I read this putt and he misses it he’s going to blame me.'

“So Terry goes over and bends down to read the putt, and Poulter’s like, no, no I’ve got the putt. You remember when you’re a kid at your home club and say to yourself this putt to win the Open? Well, this is my putt, now watch this.”

Poulter made the putt to finish at 7 over for the week, but it wasn’t to win The Open.

Following three consecutive bogeys before the turn, Harrington rebounded with birdies at Nos. 13 and 15 to move to 5 over before hitting what may be the most memorable shot of his career on the par-5 17th hole to seal his second major championship.

From 272 yards, Harrington rifled a 5-wood to 3 feet for what was essentially a walk-off eagle.

“It was a hell of a long way back in the day. A cold, windy day with the wind whipping off the left, but it was my favorite club and I was feeling good. You can never underestimate someone feeling good about their game, feeling confident with the shot they are hitting,” Harrington said. “It was one of the few times I’ve heard my caddie tell me it was a good shot when it was in the air.”

At the time, Harrington called his victory at the ’08 Open the most satisfying of his career, which is surprising considering how emotional he was following his victory a year earlier in Scotland. Asked recently where his Birkdale victory ranks the 45-year-old had a more reasoned take.

“Everything I did the week of Birkdale went exactly how you would dream of winning a major when you’re 15 years of age,” he said. “I played great, swung the club well, hit some spectacular shots, I was favorite. When you were a kid this is the scenario you would have had.”

Despite poor health and a poor draw, for Harrington it was the perfect ending.

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Recovering Thomas thinks Match Play could help cause

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 10:07 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – It’s been a tough couple of days for Justin Thomas, and he hasn’t played an event in three weeks.

The world’s second-ranked player had his wisdom teeth removed on March 7 following the WGC-Mexico Championship and has been recovering ever since.

“I'm feeling OK. As funny as it is, as soon as I got over my wisdom teeth, I got a little strep throat,” Thomas said on Tuesday at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. “I was pretty worried yesterday, to be honest, how I was going to be doing, but I feel a lot better today and just keep taking medicine and hopefully it will be good.”

Thomas, who is listed in the Tour media guide as 5-foot-10, 145 pounds, said he lost about 6 pounds when he had his wisdom teeth removed and has struggled to put that weight back on because of his bout with strep throat.

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As a result, his energy levels are low, which is a particular concern considering the marathon nature of the Match Play, which could include as many as seven rounds if he were to advance to Sunday’s championship match. Thomas, however, said the format could actually make things easier this week.

“I told my dad, I only have to beat one person each day. I don't have to beat the whole field,” said Thomas, who has won just one match in two starts at the Match Play. “If it was stroke play then I may have a little harder time. But hopefully each day I'll get better and better. Who knows, maybe that will help me win a match in this golf tournament, because I've had a pretty hard time in the past.”

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Spieth thought Mickelson blew him off as a kid

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 7:50 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Phil Mickelson is widely recognized as one of the PGA Tour’s most accommodating players when it comes to the fans and signing autographs.

Lefty will famously spend hours after rounds signing autographs, but sometimes perception can deviate from reality, as evidenced by Jordan Spieth’s encounter with Mickelson years ago when he was a junior golfer.

“I think I was at the [AT&T] Byron Nelson with my dad and Phil Mickelson and Davis Love were on the putting green. I was yelling at them, as I now get annoyed while I'm practicing when I'm getting yelled at, and they were talking,” Spieth recalled. “When they finished, Phil was pulled off in a different direction and Davis came and signed for me. And I thought for the longest time that Phil just blew me off. And Davis was like the nicest guy. And Phil, I didn't care for as much for a little while because of that.”

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Entering his sixth full season on Tour, Spieth now has a drastically different perspective on that day.

“[Mickelson] could have been late for media. He could have been having a sponsor obligation. He could have been going over to sign for a kid’s area where there was a hundred of them,” Spieth said. “There's certainly been kids that probably think I've blown them off, too, which was never my intention. It would have never been Phil's intention either.”

Spieth said he has spoken with Mickelson about the incident since joining the Tour.

“He probably responded with a Phil-like, ‘Yeah, I knew who you were, and I didn't want to go over there and sign it,’ something like that,” Spieth laughed. “I’ve gotten to see him in person and really see how genuine he is with everybody he comes in contact with. Doesn't matter who it is. And he's a tremendous role model and I just wasn't aware back then.”

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This week, let the games(manship) begin

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 7:47 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – The gentleman’s game is almost entirely devoid of anything even approaching trash talk or gamesmanship.

What’s considered the norm in other sports is strictly taboo in golf - at least that’s the standard for 51 weeks out of the year. That anomaly, however, can be wildly entertaining.

During Monday’s blind draw to determine this week’s 16 pods, Pat Perez was the first to suggest that this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play is the exception to the stoic rule on the PGA Tour.

“Me and Branden [Grace] played a nine-hole match today and were chirping at each other the entire time,” Perez laughed. “Stuff like, ‘go in the trees.’ We were laughing about it, I didn’t get mad, I hit it in the trees.”

Although Perez and Grace may have been on the extreme end of the trash-talk spectrum, it’s widely understood that unlike the steady diet of stroke-play stops in professional golf, the Match Play and the Ryder Cup are both chances to test some of the game’s boundaries.

“There’s been a couple of different instances, both in the Ryder Cup. I can't share them with you, I'm sorry,” laughed Jordan Spieth, before adding. “I think they [the comments] were indifferent to me and helped [U.S. partner Patrick Reed].

Often the gamesmanship is subtle, so much so an opponent probably doesn’t even realize what’s happening.

Jason Day, for example, is a two-time winner of this event and although he was reluctant to go into details about all of his “tricks,” he did explain his mindset if he finds himself trailing in a match.

“Always walk forward in front of the person that you're playing against, just so you're letting them know that you're pushing forward and you're also letting them know that you're still hanging around,” Day explained. “People feed off body language. If I'm looking across and the guy's got his shoulders slumped and his head is down, you can tell he's getting frustrated, that's when you push a little bit harder.”

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Some moments are not so innocent, as evidenced by a story from Paul Casey from a match during his junior days growing up in England.

“I remember a player’s ball was very close to my line, as his coin was very close to my line and we were still both about 10 feet away and he kind of looked at me,” Casey recalled. “I assumed he looked at me to confirm whether his marker was in my line and it needed to be moved. I said, ‘That's OK there.’ So he picked [his coin] up. And then of course he lost his ability to understand English all of a sudden.”

While the exploits this week won’t be nearly as egregious, there have been a handful of heated encounters at the Match Play. In 2015 when this event was played at Harding Park in San Francisco, Keegan Bradley and Miguel Angel Jimenez went nose to nose when the Spaniard attempted to intervene in a ruling that Bradley was taking and the incident even spilled over into the locker room after the match.

But if those types of encounters are rare, there’s no shortage of mind games that will take place over the next few days at Austin Country Club.

“It's part of it. It should be fun,” Spieth said. “There should be some gamesmanship. That's the way it is in every other sport, we just never play one-on-one or team versus team like other sports do. That's why at times it might seem way out of the ordinary. If every tournament were match play, I don't think that would be unusual.”

It also helps heat things up if opponents have some history together. On Tuesday, Rory McIlroy was asked if he’s run across any gamesmanship at the Match Play. While the Northern Irishman didn’t think there would be much trash talking going on this week, he did add with a wry smile, “Patrick Reed isn’t in my bracket.”

McIlroy and Reed went head-to-head in an epic singles duel at the 2016 Ryder Cup, which the American won 1 up. The duo traded plenty of clutch shots during the match, with Reed wagging his finger at McIlroy following a particularly lengthy birdie putt and McIlroy spurring the crowd with roars of, “I can’t hear you.”

It was an example of how chippy things can get at the Match Play that when McIlroy was asked if he had any advice for Spieth, who drew Reed in his pod this week, his answer had a bit of a sharp edge.

“Don't ask for any drops,” laughed McIlroy, a not-so-subtle reference to Reed’s comment last week at Bay Hill after being denied free relief by a rules official, “I guess my name needs to be Jordan Spieth, guys,” Reed said on Sunday.

Put another way, this is not your grandfather’s game. This is the Match Play where trash talking and gamesmanship are not only acceptable, but can also be extremely entertaining.

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Romo set to make PGA Tour debut at Punta Cana

By Will GrayMarch 20, 2018, 6:43 pm

While much of the attention in golf this week will be focused on the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin, Tony Romo may send a few eyeballs toward the Caribbean.

The former quarterback and current CBS NFL analyst will make his PGA Tour debut this week, playing on a sponsor invite at the Corales Punta Cana Resort & Club Championship in the Dominican Republic. The exemption was announced last month when Romo played as an amateur at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and he's apparently been hard at work ever since.

"I'll be treating it very serious," Romo told reporters Tuesday. "My wife will tell you she hasn't seen me much over the last month. But if you know me at all, I think you know if I care about something I'm going to commit to it 100 percent. So like I said. you'll get the best I've got this week."

Romo retired from the NFL last year and plays to a plus-0.3 handicap. In addition to his participation in the Pebble Beach event, he has tried to qualify for the U.S. Open multiple times and last month played a North Texas PGA mini-tour event as an amateur.

According to Romo, one of the key differences between pro football and golf is the fact that his former position is entirely about reactive decisions, while in golf "you're trying to commit wholeheartedly before you ever pull the club out of your bag."

"I'm not worried about getting hit before I hit the ball," Romo said. "It's at my own tempo, my own speed, in this sport. Sometimes that's difficult, and sometimes that's easier depending on the situation."

Romo admitted that he would have preferred to have a couple extra weeks to prepare, but recently has made great strides in his wedge game which "was not up to any Tour standard." The first-tee jitters can't be avoided, but Romo hopes to settle in after battling nerves for the first three or four holes Thursday.

Romo hopes to derive an added comfort factor from his golf in the Dallas area, where he frequently plays with a group of Tour pros. While Steph Curry traded texts with a few pros before his tournament debut last summer on the Tour, Romo expects his phone to remain silent until he puts a score on the board.

"I think they're waiting to either tell me 'Congrats' or 'I knew it, terrible,'" Romo said. "Something along those lines. They're probably going to wait to see which way the wind's blowing before they send them."

Romo will tee off at 8:10 a.m. ET Thursday alongside Dru Love and Denny McCarthy.