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Distance a problem? Not according to many pros

By Rex HoggardMarch 5, 2018, 6:10 pm

MEXICO CITY – The drumbeat had been unmistakable.

For months the powers that be had talked of “concerns” over distance gains in recent years and how the impact on the game has been, “horrible.”

On Monday, those concerns were given a face by way of the USGA and R&A’s annual review of driving distances. Essentially, the report – which uses data from seven professional tours around the world – notes that the average drive increased more than 3 yards in 2017 compared with the previous year.

By comparison, the 2017 report found “a slow creep” in driving distances (around .2 yards per year since 2003).

To be clear, golf’s rules makers have made no rule changes and remain “open-minded” about where the game goes from here, but phrases like “concerning” are sure to make those who regularly hit 300-yard drives take notice.

Consider this the early introductions in what is shaping up to be a polarizing debate. On one side, the rules makers and golf traditionalist see continued increases in driving distances as a red flag, both for the professional tours and the recreational game. On the other side of the aisle are those who consider longer and longer tee shots nothing more than a natural evolution of the game.

Although the rules makers have been clear that this is about more than simply the professional game, although the data is driven almost exclusively from the worldwide tours, it will be the play-for-pay types who are impacted the most by any potential changes, whatever those changes may be.

“The athletes are getting significantly better, they're in the gym every day. You go out to the gym here and there's dozens of players in there every day,” said Phil Mickelson, Sunday’s champion at the WGC-Mexico Championship. “They're the ones that are able to take advantage of the technology. So I don't think that type of hard work and dedication should be punished.”

It was a common take last week in Mexico. While the report never specifically mentions the golf ball, there is evidence that suggests that’s where the USGA and R&A would look to reign in distance.

Just last week at the Honda Classic Jack Nicklaus described a recent exchange between himself and USGA CEO Mike Davis over driving distances: “Mike said, ‘We’re getting there. We’re going to get there. I need your help when we get there.’ I said, ‘That’s fine. I’m happy to help you. I’ve only been yelling at you for 40 years.’ 1977 is the first time I went to the USGA.”

Yet for those currently on the front lines of the distance debate it’s difficult to distinguish between entertainment and a distance emergency.

“What do viewers at home want to watch? They want to see long tee shots, they want to see us spinning the ball, they want to see long putts and they want to see us shooting low scores,” Ross Fisher said. “I don’t get what all the fuss is about.”

While average drives increased 2.5 yards on the PGA Tour in 2017, which is substantial, that’s not even the largest year over year bump in the last decade. In 2011, the Tour average was 290.9 yards, a 3.6-yard increase over ’10, before settling back to 287.2 yards in ’13. These kinds of distance spikes are common and can be impacted through a variety of factors, from course conditions to weather patterns.

The bigger concern among Tour players is how the USGA and R&A could implement a potential rollback. Going after the golf ball seems to be the most-talked-about option, but distance increases in recent years have been fueled by a variety of factors.

“[The golf ball] shouldn’t be the focus of why guys are hitting the ball as far as they are,” Paul Casey said. “It’s one of multiple reasons guys are hitting it so far. It shouldn’t get the entire blame. Don’t just blame the golf ball, it’s unfair to do that. Is it a factor? Of course.”

Casey went through a familiar line up of habitual offenders, from improved fitness and teaching to golf course agronomy and the lure of golf to attract bigger athletes in recent decades.

“You have to focus on equipment to dial it back, because you’re not going to stop us [from going to the gym],” Casey said. “Yes, you can slow the ball down, and that seems to be the obvious element everyone looks at, but I’d like to see smaller driver heads. If you went to a smaller driver-head size, guys might go for more loft, a slightly spinnier golf ball to keep it in play and that would reduce overall distance.”

Like many of his Tour frat brothers, Casey acknowledged perceived concerns with longer and longer drives, but he clarified that despite the building drumbeat to rein in driving distances, he sees nothing wrong with the way the game is played at the highest level.

“I love it,” smiled Casey, who, for the sake of full disclosure, is one of the circuit’s longer hitters with a 307-yard average this season (27th on Tour).

That love appears to be unrequited if Monday’s distance report is any indication, but whatever happens over the next few months know that a good portion of modern professionals see nothing wrong with the modern game.

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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?’”