Only certainty is uncertainty at The Open

By Rex HoggardJuly 19, 2017, 3:09 pm

SOUTHPORT, England – The last time the game’s oldest member-guest was played along this stretch of Irish Sea coast an Irishman blew through more championship dogma than the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 NBA finals.

Much like LeBron James and company, who became the first team to rally from a 3-1 series deficit last year, Padraig Harrington became the first European player to successfully defend his title at The Open since James Braid did it at the turn of the 20th century (1906), and just for good measure he did so from the poor side of what turned out to be a soulless draw.

Golf being arguably the most capricious form of sports predictability where the status quo rarely stands a chance, Harrington’s triumph was nothing short of inconceivable, which easily explains why any notion of a true favorite this week has been discarded.

Technically, Jordan Spieth has been installed as the man to beat, with local bookmakers moving the American to a 14-1 frontrunner early Wednesday, just ahead of Dustin Johnson.

But those easily identifiable regulars aside, the 146th edition of The Open is anything but regular or predictable, a reality that begins with a golf course that played to a 74.86 scoring average in ’08 when the claret jug last made a cameo to this corner of England, more than a stroke higher than the next-toughest layout that season.

Those who endured that slugfest remember fierce winds that made play nearly impossible on Day 1 with gusts to 35 mph, which makes a similar forecast for this week worth noting.

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Put another way, championships that are often decided by an untimely gust rarely stay on script.

 Yet beyond the obvious rub of links golf is a trend that is slowly inching its way toward tradition, with the last seven Grand Slam gatherings won by first-time major winners.

Gone are the days of Tiger Woods winning majors at such an alarming rate that players considered “B flight” honors a realistic goal some weeks.

Some think the phenomenon is the byproduct of a missing dominant player, but parity seems the more likely culprit with six of the top 10 players in the world ranking having won majors in the last three years.

“Golf is in a place right now where you have so many players playing really well, and a lot of the guys that are playing really well haven't won a major like, the likes of Jon Rahm or Justin Thomas or whoever it may be,” Rory McIlroy said. “No one is really standing out and sort of taking it by the scruff of the neck. But it's so hard these days to separate yourself.”

McIlroy explained the phenomenon is a reality of the modern game, where technology and cutting-edge teaching have dramatically narrowed the gap between the game’s best.

“That's why the margins are so fine, and that's why you're finding all these guys so closely grouped together because it's so hard to find that little percent or 2 percent that separates you from the rest of the pack,” he said.

But if the Northern Irishman’s explanation is the most comprehensive reasoning behind the trend, there’s also something to be said for the inevitable ebb and flow of even the game’s best players.

Consider that Johnson, who was the favorite at Royal Birkdale before being unseated on the eve of this week’s championship, was as dominant as anyone earlier this year after winning three consecutive starts, but he hasn’t played the weekend at a major since last year’s Open and is fresh off back-to-back missed cuts.

The same could be said of McIlroy, who has been slowed this season by injury and has missed the cut in three of his last four worldwide events; or Day, whose best finish is a playoff loss at the AT&T Byron Nelson and has missed the weekend in his last two events.

The truth is, it’s easier to make an argument for another first-time winner this week at Royal Birkdale, with players like world No. 2 Hideki Matsuyama seemingly poised on the brink of a Grand Slam breakthrough.

The Japanese star finished 11th at the Masters, second at the U.S. Open and proved his links prowess two weeks ago with a tie for 14th at the Irish Open. Or Rahm, who is fresh off his victory in Ireland and having proven himself against the game’s best with top-3 finishes at both this year’s World Golf Championships.

The most obvious choice to extend the first-timer’s trend to eight straight may be Rickie Fowler. Although he seemed destined to win his first major at last month’s U.S. Open, where he finished tied for fifth after a pedestrian closing round, he’s played some of his best Grand Slam golf at The Open.

In seven starts he’s missed the cut just once at The Open and finished runner-up in 2014, two shots behind eventual champion McIlroy, and fifth in ’11.

And these obvious choices ignore the normal standbys, like Lee Westwood or Paul Casey, who have both played well at The Open in the past but remain on the wrong side of the major margin.

“I think it's a really impressive stat and it speaks to the state of the game. There are a lot of tremendous young players right now,” Spieth said. “And then you've got guys like Henrik [Stenson] and Dustin [Johnson]. They are still young, but they have been around in contention many, many times – and sooner or later it was going to happen for them. And it did. It was just a matter of time for them.”

Picking a winner any week in golf has become a zero-sum game, and the modern major landscape has proven to be even more mercurial when it comes to anything even close to predictability.

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Lincicome grouped with two rookies in Barbasol

By Golf Channel DigitalJuly 17, 2018, 9:54 pm

Brittany Lincicome will tee it up with a pair of rookies when she makes her first start in a PGA Tour event Thursday at the Barbasol Championship at Keene Trace Golf Club in Nicholasville, Ky.

Lincicome, an eight-time LPGA winner, is scheduled to go off the 10th tee at 9:59 a.m. ET in the first round with Sam Ryder, 28, and Conrad Shindler, 29. They’re off the first tee Friday at 2:59 p.m. ET

Lincicome will become just the sixth woman to play in a PGA Tour event, joining Babe Zaharias, Shirley Spork, Annika Sorenstam, Suzy Whaley and Michelle Wie.

“The first three or four holes, I’ll be a nervous wreck, for sure,” Linicome said.



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Lincicome thrilled by reception from male pros

By Randall MellJuly 17, 2018, 8:31 pm

Brittany Lincicome wondered how PGA Tour pros would greet her when she arrived to play the Barbasol Championship this week.

She wondered if there would be resentment.

She also wondered how fans at Keene Trace Golf Club in Nicholasville, Ky., would receive her, and if a social media mob would take up pitchforks.

“I can’t stop smiling,” Lincicome said Tuesday after her first practice round upon arriving. “Everyone has been coming up to me and wishing me luck. That means a lot.”

PGA Tour pro Martin Piller, husband of LPGA pro Gerina Piller, welcomed her immediately.

Other pros sought her out on the practice putting green.

She said she was also welcomed joining pros at a table in player dining.

Fans have been stopping her for autographs.

“It has been an awesome reception,” said Dewald Gouws, her husband, a former long-drive competitor. “I think it’s put her much more at ease, seeing the reception she is getting. There’s a lot of mutual respect.”

Lincicome, 32, wasn’t sure if she would be playing a practice round alone Tuesday morning, but when she made her way to the first tee, Domenico Geminiani was there, just about to go off.

He waved Lincicome over.

“He said, `Hey, Brittany, do you want to join me?’” Gouws said. “Come to find out, Dom’s a pretty cool guy.”

Geminiani made it into the field as a Monday qualifier.

“The two of us were both trying to figure things out together,” Lincicome said.

Keene Trace will play to 7,328 yards on the scorecard. That’s more than 800 yards longer than Highland Meadows, where Lincicome finished second at the LPGA’s Marathon Classic last weekend. Keene Trace was playing even longer than its listed yardage Tuesday, with recent rains softening it.

Nicknamed “Bam Bam,” Lincicome is one of the longest hitters in the women’s game. Her 269.5 yard average drive is 10th in the LPGA ranks. It would likely be dead last on the PGA Tour, where Brian Stuard (278.2) is the last player on the stats list at No. 201.

“I think if I keep it in the fairway, I’ll be all right,” Lincicome said.

Lincicome is an eight-time LPGA winner, with two major championships among those titles. She is just the sixth woman to compete in a PGA Tour event, the first in a decade, since Michelle Wie played the Reno-Tahoe Open, the last of her eight starts against the men.

Lincicome will join Babe Zaharias, Shirley Spork, Annika Sorenstam, Suzy Whaley and Wie in the elite ranks.

Zaharias, by the way, is the only woman to make a 36-hole cut in PGA Tour history, making it at the 1945 L.A. Open before missing a 54-hole cut on the weekend.

What are Lincicome’s expectations?

She would love to make the cut, but . . .

“Just going to roll with it and see what happens,” she said. “This is once in a lifetime, probably a one-and-done opportunity. I’m just going to enjoy it.”

Lincicome grew up playing for the boys’ golf team at Seminole High on the west coast of Florida. She won a couple city championships.

“I always thought it would be cool to compete against the guys on the PGA Tour,” Lincicome said. “I tend to play more with the guys than women at home. I never would have gone out and told my agent, `Let’s go try to play in a PGA Tour event,’ but when Tom Murray called with this opportunity, I was really blown away and excited by it. I never in a million years thought I would have this opportunity.”

Tom Murray, the president of Perio, the parent company of Barbasol and Pure Silk, invited Lincicome to accept one of the tournament’s sponsor exemptions. Lincicome represents Pure Silk.

Lincicome said her desire to play a PGA Tour event is all about satisfying her curiosity, wanting to know how she would stack up at this level. She also wants to see if the experience can help take her to the next level in the women’s game.

As a girl growing up, she played Little League with the boys, instead of softball with the girls. She said playing the boys in golf at Seminole High helped her get where she is today.

“The guys were better, and it pushed me to want to be better,” Lincicome said. “I think playing with the guys [on the PGA Tour], I will learn something to take to LPGA events, and it will help my game, for sure.”

Lincicome has been pleased that her fellow LPGA pros are so supportive. LPGA winner Kris Tamulis is flying into Kentucky as moral support. Other LPGA pros may also be coming in to support her.

The warm fan reception Lincicome is already getting at Keene Trace matters, too.

“She’s already picked up some new fans this week, and hopefully she will pick up some more,” Gouws said. “I don’t think she’s putting too much expectation on herself. I think she really does just want to have fun.”

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Stunner: Inbee Park steps aside for Int. Crown

By Randall MellJuly 17, 2018, 4:00 pm

There was a big surprise this week when the LPGA announced the finalized lineups for the UL International Crown.

Rolex world No. 1 Inbee Park won’t be teeing it up for the host South Koreans Oct. 4-7 in Incheon.

She has withdrawn, saying she wanted another Korean to be able to experience the thrill of representing her country.

It’s a stunner given the importance the LPGA has placed on taking the UL International Crown to South Korea and its golf-crazy allegiance to the women’s game in the Crown’s first staging outside the United States.

Two-time major champion In Gee Chun will replace Park.

"It was my pleasure and honor to participate in the first UL International Crown in 2014 and at the 2016 Olympics, and I cannot describe in one word how amazing the atmosphere was to compete as a representative of my country,” Park said. “There are so many gifted and talented players in Korea, and I thought it would be great if one of the other players was given the chance to experience the 2018 UL International Crown.”

Chun, another immensely popular player in South Korea, was the third alternate, so to speak, with the world rankings used to field teams. Hye Jin Choi and Jin Young Ko were higher ranked than Chun but passed because of commitments made to competing in a Korean LPGA major that week. The other South Koreans who previously qualified are So Yeon Ryu, Sung Hyun Park and I.K. Kim.

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Na: I can admit, 'I went through the yips'

By Rex HoggardJuly 17, 2018, 3:35 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Following his victory two weeks ago at A Military Tribute at the Greenbrier, Kevin Na said his second triumph on the PGA Tour was the most rewarding of his career.

Although he declined to go into details as to why the victory was so gratifying at The Greenbrier, as he completed his practice round on Tuesday at the Open Championship, Na shed some light on how difficult the last few years have been.

“I went through the yips. The whole world saw that. I told people, 'I can’t take the club back,'” Na said on Tuesday at Carnoustie. “People talked about it, 'He’s a slow player. Look at his routine.' I was admitting to the yips. I didn’t use the word ‘yip’ at the time. Nobody wants to use that word, but I’m over it now so I can use it. The whole world saw it.”

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Na, who made headlines for his struggles to begin his backswing when he found himself in the lead at the 2012 Players Championship, said he asked other players who had gone through similar bouts with the game’s most dreaded ailment how they were able to get through it.

“It took time,” he said. “I forced myself a lot. I tried breathing. I tried a trigger. Some guys will have a forward press or the kick of the right knee. That was hard and the crap I got for it was not easy.”

The payoff, however, has steadily arrived this season. Na said he’d been confident with his game this season following a runner-up showing at the Genesis Open and a fourth-place finish at the Fort Worth Invitational, and he felt he was close to a breakthrough. But being able to finish a tournament like he did at The Greenbrier, where he won by five strokes, was particularly rewarding.

“All good now,” he smiled. “I knew I was good enough to win again, but until you do it sometimes you question yourself. It’s just the honest truth.”