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Good and bad: Woods puts on a variety show

By Rex HoggardMarch 9, 2018, 12:03 am

PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Tiger Woods’ round on Thursday at the Valspar Championship had a little bit of everything.

There was drama, excitement, frustration and even a moment of trepidation when the game’s most injury-plagued athlete took on an oak tree and appeared to lose (spoiler alert: He said he’s fine).

He entertained and aggravated with equal abandon on a demanding day at Innisbrook Resort, which Woods hasn’t seen since pleated pants and baggy shirts were all the rage.

There was even some vintage rivalry banter between Woods and his longtime antagonist Phil Mickelson, who won last week’s WGC-Mexico Championship to end a victory drought that had stretched beyond four years.

“I wouldn't be surprised if [Woods] went out and won this weekend to one-up me again,” Mickelson said Thursday on the Dan Patrick Show.

Seems Lefty’s not just a 43-time winner on the PGA Tour. Perhaps he’s a bit clairvoyant as well.

Despite the ebb and flow of Day 1’s outing at Innisbrook, which Tiger last played in 1996 when it was a mixed team event, Woods emerged with a 1-under 70 which left him tied for eighth place and just three strokes off the lead.

He missed as many greens (nine) as he hit in regulation, wasn’t much better at finding fairways (7 of 13) and seemed to follow every birdie with a bogey, and yet when he completed a chilly round on a blustery day he sounded like a man who’d just checked an item off his bucket list.

Full-field scores from the Valspar Championship

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“It feels great,” Woods said when asked the state of his game. “Today was tough, man. I don't know if these people really understand how hard it was out there trying to pull a club, trying to figure out the wind direction, the gusts.”

The roller coaster started early, with a tap-in birdie at the first hole, followed by a bogey at No. 4. He birdied the eighth only to bogey the ninth. You get the idea.

There were back-to-back birdies at Nos. 10 and 11 to move to within two strokes of the lead, which is held by first-year Tour player Corey Conners, only to slip back with bogeys at the 12th and 13th holes.

As has been the case throughout this most recent comeback, Woods’ short game was vintage. He was 5-for-9 in scrambling, but he continued to struggle off the tee.

But if his ball-striking was a concern, Woods wasn’t letting on.

Although the Tampa-area stop was never a part of Woods’ rotation, he’s embraced the Copperhead Course, which ranked as the 17th-toughest on Tour last season, for what it is – a demanding test of every area of his game.

“I enjoy when par is a good score, it's a reward,” he said. “There are some tournaments when about four holes you don't make a birdie you feel like you're behind. Today I made a couple birdies, all of a sudden that puts me fourth, fifth, right away. That's how hard it is. It's the reward to go out there and make a couple birdies here and there and I like that type of challenge.”

To his point, Woods’ playing partners on Thursday – Jordan Spieth, the field’s highest-ranking player, and Henrik Stenson – combined to shoot 8 over par.

On Wednesday, Woods said he decided to add the Valspar Championship to his schedule after playing the Honda Classic, where he finished 12th. It was his second consecutive week of tournament golf and an encouraging sign that his body could withstand the rigors of competition.

With that box checked, he’s now turned his attention to honing his game with an eye toward the Masters. To do that he must test his swing under pressure, and although Innisbrook isn’t a major it certainly asks major questions.

His play at the par-4 16th hole was a microcosm of Woods’ eventful day. Hitting an iron off the tee, Woods watched it sail well left of the fairway. From an impossible lie and with a tree restricting his backswing he hooked his approach just right of the green. He also banged his arm into the tree, which prompted a wince from Woods and a collective deep breath from his fan base.

“The hand is fine. I didn't hit my hand. My forearm hit the tree a little bit,” Woods explained.

Woods would par the hole, chipping to 3 feet to complete the magic trick, and nearly dropped his tee ball at the 17th hole for an ace, a shot that stopped a foot from the flagstick for the day’s final birdie.

Perhaps it wasn’t Woods’ score that gave him confidence as much as it was his position on a leaderboard that was crowded with the relatively unproven likes of Conners, Whee Kim and Kelly Kraft, who were tied for second place and have a combined zero victories on Tour.

Or maybe it’s the progress he’s made with his game in an exceedingly short period of time that lifted Woods’ spirits on a gloomy afternoon.

“I'm pleased with every aspect of my game,” he said. “I drove it well, I hit a lot of good iron shots today and I had some good speed on the putts. Greens are a little bit grainy and I hit a lot of good ones. Spanked a couple here and there. I thought I really did well today, overall.”

Overall, it was impressive and irksome. You know, a little bit of everything.

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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?’”