Open coming down to Mickelson, Stenson

By Rex HoggardJuly 16, 2016, 7:48 pm

TROON, Scotland – At the risk of offending the other 79 players remaining at Royal Troon, Sunday’s finale will be a two-man act.

Sure, Phil Mickelson can always have, well ... a Phil moment; and Henrik Stenson remains a quirky Swede desperately looking to crack the major ceiling for the first time.

It’s always dicey making the early call, particularly at a major where a single gust of wind off the Firth of Clyde can ruin one’s day, but this 145th Open has become a two-ball. The other 79 will make the rounds on Sunday, but barring a Van de Velde-like meltdown Mickelson and Stenson will have the run of the place.

Rory McIlroy knew it. “Henrik and Phil are sort of playing their own tournament right now,” the Northern Irishman said following a 73 on Sunday that left him a dozen strokes adrift of the lead.

Jordan Spieth even conceded he plans to use Sunday’s final turn as a tuneup for the PGA Championship in two weeks.

“I’ll try to take momentum tomorrow, but understanding that we're going to be working towards the PGA now,” said Spieth, who was 17 shots back when a blustery day drew to a close.

Even Stenson, who got the best of Lefty on Day 3 with a 68 to grab a one-stroke lead over Mickelson, allowed what everyone else with an internet connection and a passing interest sensed.

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“As of now you’d think it’s a battle between Phil and myself,” said Stenson, who briefly took the lead early on the front nine on Saturday and pulled away for good with a birdie at the 17th hole and finished at 12 under par.

In fact, it seems the only person who wasn’t willing to buy into the notion of a two-man show was Mickelson.

Asked if he considered Sunday’s final pairing a match-play setting, Mickelson was concise, “No, not at all.”

But then the southpaw has been here before. Literally he’s been here, at Royal Troon, in a similar position only to watch the engraver etch Todd Hamilton’s name into the claret jug.

Mickelson began the final round in 2004 along the Ayrshire coast two strokes off the lead and finished one shot out of a playoff between Hamilton and Ernie Els.

This week, after two days of “easy” golf, the game’s most eclectic left-hander endured a game that, at least early in his round, was downright hard.

Mickelson said his rhythm abandoned him early in Round 3, the byproduct of a helping wind on the outward loop and a closer’s desire to put the competition away as quickly as possible.

“I was a little bit jumpy and my rhythm wasn't very good today,” Mickelson said. “Today could have been a day that got away from me, instead I shot under par and kept myself right in it heading into tomorrow's final round, so I'm proud of that.”

By the time he reached the turn, however, Lefty rediscovered his touch for a 1-under 70 to assure a late afternoon pairing with Stenson at 11 under par.

Although Phil was reluctant to allow himself the luxury of a mano-y-mano match with Stenson, the bright yellow leaderboard told a different story.

No one is closer to the two leading men than five strokes (Bill Haas), and the only players with any real experience on a major Sunday are Sergio Garcia (2 under) and Dustin Johnson (1 under).

That’s not to say Sunday’s matinee will be devoid of the kind of give and take that makes major championships so compelling, at least if Saturday’s bout was any indication.

Mickelson pulled two strokes clear of Stenson with a 30-footer for birdie at the 13th hole, rattling off fist pumps like he was at his beloved San Diego Chargers’ season opener.

But within a 40-minute window there were a pair of dramatic two-stroke exchanges, first at the 14th when Mickelson three-putted, missing a 3-footer for par, and Stenson rolled in a 10-foot birdie putt; followed by another at the 17th when the Swede converted from 20 feet for birdie and Lefty posted his second bogey of the day.

“On 14 without making birdie you don't know how it's going to finish up, but the one on 17 certainly put me in front and gave me that little edge going into tomorrow,” Stenson said. “I've always been of the thought that it's better to be one ahead than one behind, because that means Phil's got to play better than I do tomorrow.”

On paper, another Open title for Mickelson would do little to further Lefty’s legacy other than to spike the sale of binder clips as makeshift hat fasteners, but on second brush the context of the accomplishment would be remarkable.

At 46, Mickelson would be about a month younger than Jack Nicklaus when he won the 1986 Masters to set the standard for timeless accomplishment in golf.

It’s been three years, exactly, since Lefty last won on the PGA Tour and he’d drifted so far from his normal form that Jay Haas had to make him a captain’s pick for last year’s Presidents Cup.

But then age is a relative ideal in golf today and 40-something champions are not exactly unheard of in the modern game.

“I'm 25 pounds lighter, I'm in better shape, I'm physically stronger than I was. I feel better and I'm playing well, now that my swing is back on plane,” he said. “I'm starting to hit some shots like I did 10 years ago and starting to play some of my best golf again.”

Whether it would hold the same historical significance as Jack in ’86 is a debate for another day. What isn’t up for debate with 18 holes remaining at Royal Troon is that this is now officially a two-man race. 

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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.”

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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.  

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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?’”