McIlroy faces toughest major challenge to date

By Rex HoggardAugust 10, 2014, 12:56 am

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Thank you, Rory McIlroy, for not making the 96th PGA Championship a foregone conclusion.

As much as the Northern Irishman wanted to add this PGA to his boat race highlight reel, the combination of relatively pedestrian play by the world No. 1 and a golf course softened to perfection by two days of incessant rain has produced Grand Slam gridlock.

He’s won major championships from two time zones ahead and a World Golf Championship from a field goal back. On Sunday at Valhalla Golf Club, McIlroy will try to add to his Grand Slam total from a crowed elevator.

What was shaping up to be another coronation now has all the markings of a Sunday brawl between some of the game’s true heavyweights, a marquee that includes Rickie Fowler, Jason Day and Phil Mickelson.

Not a Bob May in the bunch.

Well, there was a Bernd Wiesberger, but with apologies to the man from Vienna – that’s Austria not Virginia – there are no substitutes for star power, and on Day 3 substance and style coalesced into a handsome crowd.

“Of course it’s different,” said McIlroy, who maintained his lead thanks to a third-round 67 that was very much un-Rory-like and left him a shot clear of Wiesberger.

“Standing on the first tee (on Sunday) is going to feel different than how it felt a month ago at Hoylake, because you don’t have that cushion. It is going to be a shootout.”

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If form follows function, Saturday’s third round will be the standard for the final 18. Consider how McIlroy & Co. traded blows on a soggy layout with all the power and poetry of the Louisville Lip, known in these parts as Muhammad Ali, starting with a pair of unlikely par saves.

Day – freed from a season-long, injury-induced slump by the healing powers of a weaker grip – pulled his drive into Indiana and made a historic par with, without shoes, at the second hole.

Three holes later McIlroy got up and down from Floyd’s Fork, rolling in a crucial 11-footer to keep from dropping a shot, not to mention his momentum.

And so it went, contenders of all varieties emerged to challenge the three-time major champion from every muddy corner of Valhalla.

Fowler holed a 16-footer at the 10th to tie McIlroy at 10 under. Moments later, Ryan Palmer birdied the 11th to join the party. Day was next with a 9-footer for birdie at the 13th hole to grab a share of the spotlight.

But by the time McIlroy splashed his third shot to 7 feet for his sixth birdie of the day at the last, he found himself in familiar territory, but only by the narrowest of margins.

For a player who lapped the field at the Congressional Open in 2011 and the Kiawah PGA in 2012 and entered Sunday at last month's Open Championship six ahead, this is uncharted waters.

“I’ll win any way. I’ll take a win any way it comes,” McIlroy said. “If that means having to scrap it out with a couple people coming down the stretch or if I can give myself some sort of lead going down the back nine or whatever it is.”

The only comparison is the 2011 Masters, and we all know how that turned out. Earlier this week, McIlroy referenced his play at Augusta National three years ago as the last time he’d ever attempted to protect a lead, which was four strokes through three rounds.

“I’ll never do that again,” reasoned McIlroy, who imploded during the final round of the ’11 Masters on his way to a tie for 15th place.

If things continue to trend like they have for three days, he won’t be able to. After a particularly good day for scoring, if not white pants, 11 players now find themselves within five shots of the lead.

But it’s not so much the quantity of the assembled challengers as it is the quality.

A resurgent Mickelson carded his third consecutive sub-70 round (67) for just the second time this season and overcame a poor start to finish at 10 under par and three strokes behind young Rors.

As impressive as McIlroy has been the last month, Lefty was more interested in the traffic jam that had piled up atop the leaderboard.

“When it’s this many guys, I don’t even look at a leaderboard. I just go out and push it,” said Mickelson, who is vying for his first top-10 finish on Tour this season as well as a spot on September’s Ryder Cup team.

Day, who suggested a day earlier it was time to stop waiting for the major championship door to open in exchange for a more bullish approach, faded with a “sloppy” bogey at the 16th hole but still remains just three back after a third-round 69.

But it is Fowler, this season’s Mr. Major, who may be the most compelling spoiler. After largely underachieving for much of his career in the majors, swing coach Butch Harmon has tempered Fowler’s aggressive ways, shortened his backswing and turned him into a bona fide major player.

Fowler is the only player this year to post top-5 finishes in all three Grand Slam gatherings and the final round will be the first major Sunday since the Masters that he didn’t set out in the day’s final group.

Beginning the day two shots back, however, is a solid consolation prize thanks to flawless 67 on Day 3.

“I would say that leaderboard is the most jam-packed it’s been, maybe since the start of the final round at the Masters,” Fowler said. “This one’s out there for the taking, for sure. Anyone can go out and post a number tomorrow with the way the golf course is playing.”

Fowler’s take wasn’t a slight toward McIlroy, whose dominance has been unquestionable the last few weeks, just the reality of a new challenge for the Ulsterman. Unlike those walk-offs at Congressional, Kiawah Island and Royal Liverpool, there will be no room for error on Sunday.

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Woods needs top-10 at Open to qualify for WGC

By Will GrayJuly 16, 2018, 4:34 pm

If Tiger Woods is going to qualify for the final WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club, he'll need to do something he hasn't done in five years this week at The Open.

Woods has won eight times at Firestone, including his most recent PGA Tour victory in 2013, and has openly stated that he would like to qualify for the no-cut event in Akron before it shifts to Memphis next year. But in order to do so, Woods will need to move into the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking after this week's event at Carnoustie.

Woods is currently ranked No. 71 in the world, down two spots from last week, and based on projections it means that he'll need to finish no worse than a tie for eighth to have a chance of cracking the top 50. Woods' last top-10 finish at a major came at the 2013 Open at Muirfield, where he tied for sixth.

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There are actually two OWGR cutoffs for the Bridgestone, July 23 and July 30. That means that Woods could theoretically still add a start at next week's RBC Canadian Open to chase a spot in the top 50, but he has said on multiple occasions that this week will be his last start of the month. The WGC-Bridgestone Invitational will be played Aug. 2-5.

There wasn't much movement in the world rankings last week, with the top 10 staying the same heading into the season's third major. Dustin Johnson remains world No. 1, followed by Justin Thomas, Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm. Defending Open champ Jordan Spieth is ranked sixth, with Rickie Fowler, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Tommy Fleetwood rounding out the top 10.

Despite taking the week off, Sweden's Alex Noren moved up three spots from No. 14 to No. 11, passing Patrick Reed, Bubba Watson and Paul Casey.

John Deere Classic champ Michael Kim went from No. 473 to No. 215 in the latest rankings, while South African Brandon Stone jumped from 371st to 110th with his win at the Scottish Open.

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Spieth takes familiar break ahead of Open defense

By Rex HoggardJuly 16, 2018, 3:50 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – As his title chances seemed to be slipping away during the final round of last year’s Open Championship, Jordan Spieth’s caddie took a moment to remind him who he was.

Following a bogey at No. 13, Michael Greller referenced a recent vacation he’d taken to Mexico where he’d spent time with Michael Phelps and Michael Jordan and why he deserved to be among that group of singular athletes.

Spieth, who won last year’s Open, decided to continue the tradition, spending time in Cabo again before this week’s championship.

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“I kind of went through the same schedule,” Spieth said on Monday at Carnoustie. “It was nice to have a little vacation.”

Spieth hasn’t played since the Travelers Championship; instead he attended the Special Olympics USA Games earlier this month in Seattle with his sister. It was Spieth’s first time back to the Pacific Northwest since he won the 2015 U.S. Open.

“I went out to Chambers Bay with [Greller],” Spieth said. “We kind of walked down the 18th hole. It was cool reliving those memories.”

But most of all Spieth said he needed a break after a particularly tough season.

“I had the itch to get back to it after a couple weeks of not really working,” he said. “It was nice to kind of have that itch to get back.”

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Harrington: Fiery Carnoustie evokes Hoylake in '06

By Ryan LavnerJuly 16, 2018, 3:45 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – One course came to mind when Padraig Harrington arrived on property and saw a firm, fast and yellow Carnoustie.

Hoylake in 2006.

That's when Tiger Woods avoided every bunker, bludgeoned the links with mid-irons and captured the last of his three Open titles.

So Harrington was asked: Given the similarity in firmness between Carnoustie and Hoylake, can Tiger stir the ghosts this week?

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“I really don’t know,” Harrington said Monday. “He’s good enough to win this championship, no doubt about it. I don’t think he could play golf like the way he did in 2006. Nobody else could have tried to play the golf course the way he did, and nobody else could have played the way he did. I suspect he couldn’t play that way now, either. But I don’t know if that’s the strategy this week, to lay up that far back.”

With three days until the start of this championship, that’s the biggest question mark for Harrington, the 2007 winner here. He doesn’t know what his strategy will be – but his game plan will need to be “fluid.” Do you attack the course with driver and try to fly the fairway bunkers? Or do you attempt to lay back with an iron, even though it’s difficult to control the amount of run-out on the baked-out fairways and bring the bunkers into play?

“The fairways at Hoylake are quite flat, even though they were very fast,” Harrington said. “There’s a lot of undulations in the fairways here, so if you are trying to lay up, you can get hit the back of a slope and kick forward an extra 20 or 30 yards more than you think. So it’s not as easy to eliminate all the risk by laying up.”

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How will players game-plan for Carnoustie?

By Rex HoggardJuly 16, 2018, 3:31 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Justin Thomas took a familiar slash with his driver on the 18th tee on Monday at Carnoustie and watched anxiously as his golf ball bounced and bounded down the fairway.

Unlike the two previous editions of The Open, at what is widely considered the rota’s most demanding test, a particularly warm and dry summer has left Carnoustie a parched shade of yellow and players like Thomas searching for answers.

Under the best circumstances, Carnoustie is every bit the unforgiving participant. But this week promises to be something altogether different, with players already dumbfounded by how far the ball is chasing down fairways and over greens.

Brown is beautiful here at Royal Dark & Dusty.

But then it’s also proving to be something of a unique test.

Where most practice rounds at The Open are spent trying to figure out what lines are best off tees, this is more a study of lesser evils.

Tee shots, like at the par-4 17th hole, ask multiple questions with few answers. On his first attempt, Thomas hit 2-iron off the tee at No. 17. It cleared the Barry Burn and bounded down the middle of the fairway. Perfect, right? Not this year at Carnoustie, as Thomas’ tee shot kept rolling until it reached the same burn, which twists and turns through both the 17th and 18th fairways, at a farther intersection.

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“A hole like 17 in this wind, the trick is getting a club that will carry [the burn],” said Thomas, who played 18 holes on Monday with Tiger Woods. “If that hole gets downwind you can have a hard time carrying the burn and keeping it short of the other burn. It’s pretty bizarre.”

The sixth hole can offer a similar dilemma, with players needing to carry their tee shots 275 yards to avoid a pair of pot bunkers down the right side of the fairway. Yet just 26 yards past those pitfalls looms a second set of bunkers. Even for the game’s best, trying to weave a fairway wood or long-iron into a 26-yard window can be challenging.

“Six is a really hard hole, it really just depends on how you want to play it. If you want to take everything on and have a chance of hitting an iron into a par 5, or just kind of lay back and play it as a three-shot hole,” Thomas shrugged.

It’s difficult to quantify precisely how short the 7,400-yard layout is playing. It’s not so far players are flying the ball in the air, particularly with relatively little wind in the forecast the rest of the week, so much as it is a question of how a particular shot will run out after it’s made contact with the firm turf.

As the field began to get their first taste of the bouncy fun, one of the earliest indications something was askew came on Sunday when Padraig Harrington, who won The Open the last time it was played at Carnoustie in 2007, announced to the social world that he’d hit into the burn on the 18th hole.

“This time it was the one at the green, 457 yards away,” the Irishman tweeted. “The fairways are a tad fast.”

Most players have already resigned themselves to a steady diet of mid-irons off tees this week in an attempt to at least partially control the amount of run-out each shot will have.

Jordan Spieth, the defending champion, hadn’t played a practice round prior to his media session, but could tell what’s in store just from his abbreviated range session on Monday. “Extremely baked out,” he said.

The conditions have already led Spieth and his caddie, Micheal Greller, to conjure up a tentative game plan.

“You might wear out your 5- and 4-irons off the tee instead of hitting 3- or 2-irons like you’re used to,” Greller told him.

But even that might not be the answer, as Tommy Fleetwood discovered on Sunday during a practice round. Fleetwood has a unique connection with Carnoustie having shot the course record (63) during last year’s Dunhill Links Championship.

The Englishman doesn’t expect his record to be in danger this week.

In fact, he explained the dramatically different conditions were evident on the third hole on Sunday.

“There’s holes that have been nothing tee shots, like the third. If you play that in the middle of September or October [when the Dunhill is played] and it’s green and soft, you could just hit a mid-iron down the fairway and knock it on with a wedge,” Fleetwood said. “Yesterday it was playing so firm, the fairways really undulate and you have bunkers on either side, it’s actually all of a sudden a tough tee shot.”

The alternative to the iron game plan off the tee would be to simply hit driver, an option at least one long-hitter is considering this week if his practice round was any indication.

On Sunday, Jon Rahm played aggressively off each tee, taking the ubiquitous fairway bunkers out of play but at the same time tempting fate with each fairway ringed by fescue rough, which is relatively tame given the dry conditions. But even that option has consequences.

“It’s kind of strange where there’s not really a number that you know you’re going to be short,” said Fleetwood, who played his Sunday practice round with Rahm. “[Rahm] hit a drive on 15 that was like 400 yards. You just can’t account for that kind of stuff.”

Whatever tactic players choose, this Open Championship promises to be a much different test than what players have become accustomed to at Carnoustie.