Spieth of '15 eerily similar to Woods of '97

By Rex HoggardApril 10, 2015, 8:48 pm

AUGUSTA, Ga. – We’ve seen this before.

The “it” player laying haymakers on a Masters field and leaving Augusta National officials pondering new tee boxes on the far side of Washington Road and hole locations cut into the side of Rae’s Creek.

Let the comparisons commence.

Jordan Spieth, like Tiger Woods in 1997, has spent two days dismantling the course and demoralizing the field. Both began the week 21 years old, both gained control early in their respective quests for their first green jacket and both carry an intense aversion to playing defense on a golf course that favors the bold.

Woods’ week at the 1997 Masters began with slightly less ado following opening rounds of 70-66 for a meager, relatively speaking, three-stroke advantage. He would go on to win by a dozen.

So what do we make of Spieth’s 36-hole barrage of 64-66 that left him five strokes clear of Charley Hoffman?

Like Woods, Spieth spoke of maintaining his focus and the virtues of competitive blinders following his second round.

“I still need to not be focused on anybody else, no scoreboard watching, set a goal and understand that the course is going to be harder, and then just try to strike the ball the same way I have,” said Spieth, who has recorded 15 birdies and just a single bogey.

If two PGA Tour victories - most recently at last month’s Valspar Championship - haven’t exactly moved the public needle for Spieth, a record-setting performance at Augusta National has a tendency of focusing the spotlight.

But even after two historic days for Spieth, comparisons to Woods’ ’97 victory likely won’t sit well with golf fans, who have become weary of the media’s decade's-long search for the next American hope.

In a convoluted way, the Tiger Woods era has conditioned us to have lower expectations. The “next Tiger Woods” has come and gone with regularity, from Charles Howell III to Anthony Kim. Even Rory McIlroy, poised this week to complete the career Grand Slam with a trip to Butler Cabin on Sunday following a brilliant 2014, hasn’t matched Woods’ sustained greatness.

In fairness to those would-be major champions, comparisons to Woods circa 1997-2008 were always going to be wildly misguided, but in two starts at Augusta National Spieth appears to be something of a kindred spirit.

Even Woods acknowledged what Spieth has accomplished through two turns this week.

“The difference is that he's separated himself,” Woods said. “I didn't have that separation after two rounds. I believe I only had a three-shot lead at the time. So there's a big difference. He's put out a big enough gap between the rest of the pack.”

While Spieth’s game is fundamentally sound and widely considered without weakness, he doesn’t launch the golf ball like Bubba Watson. He doesn’t possess Phil Mickelson’s short game majesty. He doesn’t bury putts like Brad Faxon.

Yet the sum of his parts is an impressively complete package and he seems to distance himself from the crowd with an innate desire - call it an addiction - to win.

“He's got competitive fire. You can see it,” said Ben Crenshaw, who played a practice round with Spieth on Wednesday and has become something of a mentor to the fellow Texan.

“When I first met him, I tell you, I'll never forget it. I looked right at him and he looked at me and I thought I was looking at Wyatt Earp. He just had that look about him, just wonderful.”

Spieth is no robot.

In the age of the detached golfer, Spieth is not above the occasional flash of fury. While largely soft-spoken, his emotions are etched into his expressive face after each shot.

“Get lucky,” he commanded his tee shot at the 13th hole on Friday before adding, “don’t get unlucky, I guess.”

Other than an apparent habit of sending his golf ball mixed messages, his poise – if not his power – is eerily Tiger-like, at least this week.

And through 36 holes Spieth’s script is looking impressively familiar to what Woods accomplished in 1997 when he won by 12 strokes.

Spieth’s 14-under total is one stroke better than the opening 36-hole record set by Raymond Floyd in 1976 at the Masters, and those who were relegated to the “B” flight back in ’97 could sense the similarities on Friday afternoon.

“Well, he's obviously playing great golf,” said Ernie Els, who was tied for 10th after two rounds in ’97. “It's similar [to Woods’ romp in ’97]. I don't remember what the lead was, but it's similar.”

Make what you will of Spieth’s inexperience, but know that he has ranked among the top 5 after each of his six tournament rounds at Augusta National, which – like dog years – makes him something just shy of salty when it comes to local knowledge.

He’s also been here before, taking a share of the lead into last year’s final round before stumbling to a closing 72 and into a tie for second place - a painful lesson, but a lesson nonetheless.

“I learned the weekend of a major, those rounds can often seem like two rounds in kind of the mental stuff that's running through your head; the stress levels, and sometimes they are higher,” Spieth said. “The hardest thing to do is put aside wanting to win so bad.”

Comparisons to Woods have historically come up a club short, but following two days at Augusta National it’s impossible to shake the feeling that we’ve all seen this before.

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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, 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.”

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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.