Finally at peace, Garcia makes major breakthrough

By Rex HoggardApril 10, 2017, 1:54 am

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Deep into the back nine on Sunday at the 1999 PGA Championship, Sergio Garcia charged in a long birdie putt at the par-3 13th hole and cast his young eyes in the direction of Tiger Woods.

“I was kind of telling him: If you want to win, you have to play well,” the then-19-year-old said of his mischievous glare in ’99 at Medinah, an event that doubled as his competitive cotillion.

Without the weight of 74 major starts hanging heavy on his shoulders, Garcia was precocious and unapologetic. The perfectly timed lag in his swing was matched only by a larger-than-life persona that had so much promise. Tiger vs. El Nino, El Nino vs. Tiger – it was the kind of prelude that gets folks thinking about a decade-long rivalry.

It’s been 18 years since that sunny afternoon outside of Chicago, and as is normally the case, hindsight can be a cruel companion.

Woods went on to win a dozen more majors after that shootout, while Garcia’s Grand Slam resume was best described as a major disappointment.

He’d finished in the top 10 at a major 22 times, including four runner-up finishes, most recently at the 2014 Open. Even his most optimistic fans had found it increasingly difficult to believe his time would come.

Even when he began Sunday’s final round at the Masters tied for the lead with Justin Rose, even when he found himself three strokes clear of the Englishman through five holes, there was too much scar tissue to think this story would have a happy ending.

When things started to go sideways after the turn there was no surprise, not if you’re being honest. He’d found so many ways to lose, why would this moment be any different?

There were no “Spieth” moments for Garcia. He didn’t dump two into the creek at the 12th or spin a wedge into a hazard at No. 15. The Band-Aid appeared to be coming off slowly, painfully.

A shaky drive at the 10th hole and an approach that found the bushes led to his first bogey of the day; another drive left at No. 11 settled behind a towering Georgia pine, but there was no Medinah-like miracle this time, just a spray of pine needles and another bogey to fall two strokes behind Rose. Just like that, he went from three strokes clear to two back in six holes.

For three days Garcia played with one arm in a green jacket. As he limped his way through Amen Corner he looked like a man in a straitjacket.

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The turning point came just as he appeared to have hit rock bottom. After he pulled his tee shot left of the creek at the 13th hole and took a drop his title chances appeared predetermined. But unlike all of those times when things got away from him in the past, Garcia didn’t quit, he didn’t give up or curse fate for turning its back on him.

“Even on 13, I didn't hit that bad a drive. In the past, I would have started telling my caddie, ‘Oh, why doesn't it go through,’” Garcia said. “But I was like, well, if that's what is supposed to happen, let it happen. Let's try to make a great 5 here and see if we can put on a hell of a finish to have a chance.”

He made that "great 5,” added a birdie at the 14th hole and retook a share of the lead with a 14-footer for eagle at No. 15.

On the eve of the final round, Garcia spoke of the need for fortune’s intervention. After keeping such esoteric thoughts at arm’s length for much of his career, age has softened the Spaniard and brought an appreciation for the things he can’t control.

That’s in dramatic contrast to the man who in 2012 after finishing tied for 12th at Augusta National famously figured, “I'm not good enough. ... I don't have the thing I need to have. In 13 years I've come to the conclusion that I need to play for second or third place.”

But this year was different. This year there was a freedom that the golf world hasn’t seen in some time. It was there from the opening tee shot and following a second-round 69 when he talked of balance and a life that is no longer defined by birdies and bogeys.

For so long the golf gods had vied against him, but on Sunday with a renewed clarity of thought he endured the slings and arrows of fortune like a man who finally understood that luck favors the prepared.

“A lot of things going on through my mind,” he said of the moments following his victory. “Some of the times I've had here at Augusta that maybe I haven't enjoyed as much and how stupid I really was trying to fight against something that you can't fight; and how proud I was of accepting things.”

By the time Garcia made his way to the 18th green for the second time on Sunday 18 years of futility had fallen away to reveal a man who is finally at peace in his own skin. As his 10-footer for birdie in the playoff dropped into the hole for the victory Garcia’s father, Victor, couldn’t contain himself in the normally subdued confines of the Augusta National grill room.

The reasons were obvious.

Garcia’s idol and two-time Masters champion Seve Ballesteros would have turned 60 on Sunday. Garcia played a practice round with Ballesteros in 1999 in his first trip to Augusta National and considers the late Spaniard a kindred spirit.

“Seve, Seve won this for Sergio,” gushed Victor as he fought back tears.

Perhaps it was Ballesteros who stepped in to end Garcia’s long major winter. Or perhaps after all these years El Nino finally embraced the concept that he spoke of as a 19-year-old at the ’99 PGA – “If you want to win, you have to play well.”

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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.”

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

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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.