Florida's best events, best courses don't match up

By Rex HoggardMarch 8, 2016, 10:50 pm

PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Forget strength of field, purse size, location or even a World Golf Championship pedigree. If players picked which tournaments to play based entirely on the quality of a golf course, the fields during the PGA Tour’s Florida swing would look vastly different.

It may not be “Super Tuesday,” but the results from an unscientific poll of players on Tuesday at the Valspar Championship regarding the best track on the Florida swing may prove a surprise.

Asked to rank the PGA Tour's five Florida stops based on the courses themselves, this week’s stop just outside Tampa edged TPC Sawgrass, home of The Players in May, for the top spot.

In order, based on player polling (five points given for a first-place vote, four for second, three for third, etc.), Innisbrook was No. 1, followed by TPC Sawgrass, PGA National (Honda Classic), Bay Hill (Arnold Palmer Invitational) and, finally, Doral (WGC-Cadillac Championship).

In fairness to all five Florida stops, if a player is in this week’s field at Innisbrook, he clearly has an affinity for the course. That, and Tour types tend to make decisions about where to play based on all manner of reasons, which is the definition of partisan politics.

“The list of champions [at Innisbrook] has been pretty strong,” smiled Kevin Streelman, the 2013 Valspar Championship winner, before adding, “It’s one I played every single year. I enjoy staying here, and I like coming to Tampa.”

But Innisbrook’s popularity seems to go well beyond the normal reasons on which players base their schedules.

“It would be hard to find a course that is a better design than this on the PGA Tour,” Trevor Immelman said. “Great par 3s. The only real funky hole is the sixth. To me, that’s the only funky hole out here, and all the other ones are pretty damn strong.”

WGC-Cadillac Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Ryan Palmer, who added this week’s stop to his schedule in an 11th-hour attempt to secure his spot in the WGC-Dell Match Play, made a more personal argument for Innisbrook’s lofty spot in the Sunshine State lineup.

“This one is an iron-play golf course and you have to drive it well. It rewards ball-striking,” said Palmer, who annually ranks among the Tour’s top ball-strikers.

His perspective is one indicator of what factors into a player’s definition of a good golf course.

Conversely, what doesn’t seem to influence players at all is the degree of difficulty.

Of the five Florida courses, PGA National ranked as the toughest last year - it was the fourth toughest overall on Tour in 2015 - and yet received a healthy share of support in player polling.

“PGA National is the hardest just because every shot is disaster waiting to happen,” Immelman said.

“There’s water on both sides and out of bounds, bunkers. A lot of times what I found playing that course was you play away from the trouble and then you’re in the [5-to-6-inch] rough and you make bogey anyway. You might as well just aim it down the water line and give it a rip. And you throw in 15-20 mph winds it gets very tricky.”

That difficulty is seen by other players as an attribute.

“PGA National is definitely the best,” Palmer said. “It’s hard and fair. There’s nothing tricky about it. It’s right in front of you. If you hit your irons well all week you’re going to play well.”

That philosophy also explains TPC Sawgrass’ status as Florida’s second-best Tour layout.

Although the Stadium Course has been something of an acquired taste for some throughout its history, there is an appreciation for the layout’s demanding nuances.

There’s also something to be said for the eclectic list of champions TPC Sawgrass has produced, a group that includes Fred Funk, Tiger Woods and Tim Clark.

“The No. 1 thing when rating golf courses is whether there have been a lot of different players winning,” Chris Stroud said. “That’s normally the best golf course. So Sawgrass is going to be up there because every type of player has won there.”

Even Streelman, who has missed the cut four times in seven starts at The Players, conceded the home of the Tour’s flagship event is among his favorite stops.

“Obviously, I love Innisbrook, but I love Sawgrass as well, so I’d give those 1-A and 1-B,” Streelman said.

As for Doral, it's slice of prime South Florida real estate does little to influence players’ view of the Blue Monster.

In fact, one player – who asked not to be identified for fear he would be fined for being critical of a Tour course – hadn’t played PGA National and declined to vote on its place in the Florida lineup, but smiled, “Doral is still fifth.”

That presents an entirely different question: If a World Golf Championship were played at Innisbrook instead of Doral, what would the field look like?

“WGC here? Best field in golf,” Stroud said.

It’s always that way in politics, you can’t have polling without a little lobbying on the side.

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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.

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

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, GolfChannel.com 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.