Perils of prevent defense

By Rex HoggardAugust 19, 2009, 4:00 pm
2009 PGA ChampionshipTiger Woods, an analytical type who likely learns more from the rare defeat than he does from those multitude of victories, was put on the spot twice last week by the assembled media masses.
 
First, he was asked if he ever thought he choked with a tournament on the line? The response was icy and hardly discernible almost to the point that one half imagined that Woods didnt understand the meaning of the word. Finally, the world's No. 1 offered a stoic shake of his head ' no.
 
On Sunday following what may have been the worst putting round of his career during a major championship Sunday jump ball, Woods was asked if hed played the final round at Hazeltine National too conservative?
 
Tiger Woods Hazeltine
Tiger Woods waits on the eighth tee during the final round of the 91st PGA Championship. (Getty Images)
When youve got 640-yard par 5s I really cant get there. . . .I dont know how aggressive I can play, Woods said.
 
Second guessing Woods is a fools errand. If your name is not Jack Nicklaus, 14 major championships and 70 Tour titles make Woods bulletproof. Woods, like Nicklaus before him, has made history by putting himself in the hunt come Sunday and waiting for those around him to fold away like banana peels (Sergio Garcia at Liverpool in 2006 comes to mind for some reason).
 
In fairness to Woods, Nicklaus created the game plan and did alright. We cherish his 18 majors as golf scripture, but often forget about those 19 Grand Slam runners-up, a statistic that suggests the formula worked well but it wasnt perfect.
 
Whether Woods played too cautiously on Sunday ' or Saturday, when his 71 gave two shots back to the field and transformed the final round from a coronation into a curiosity ' at Hazeltine National is a debate that can only be answered by Woods, and the games alpha male undoubtedly has little interest in that type of revisionist psycho-babble.
 
What is not up for debate is the dangers of playing 'prevent defense' on a PGA Tour Sunday.
 
Players, coaches and sports psychologists seem to unanimously agree on this one, playing to protect a lead is the preeminent destroyer of title dreams ' ahead of the yips, Woods and John Paramors stopwatch.
 
There is nothing good that comes out of playing prevent defense, said Randy Smith, who counts Justin Leonard and recent winner John Rollins among his stable of Tour players. Its a great defense because it prevents you from winning.
 
It is telling that the players that have given Woods a Grand Slam go are the ones with nothing to lose ' Rich Beem, Bob May, Rocco Mediate and now Y.E. Yang. No one gave the former car stereo salesman, the journeyman, the funnyman or the converted bodybuilder much of a chance and maybe thats the key ' from lowered expectations come major championships.
 
Things that dont last ' dogs that chase cars, golfers who putt for pars and Tour hopefuls who play prevent defense.
 
While Greg Norman may have never admitted as much, his Sunday Grand Slam record speaks for itself. The Sharks high-profile Sunday brushes are Exhibit A in the dangers of playing prevent defense, including his closing 77 last year at Royal Birkdale and that heartbreaking 78 on Sunday at Augusta National in 1996.
 
Its not so much the act of playing defensively as much as it is the undermining psychological impact of playing not to lose.
 
On a conceptual level if you are having that thought its going to show in the golf swing, said Dr. Gio Valiante, a Tour sports psychologist. In a golfer they say dont lose, they decel in the golf swing or hit away from the flag. What seems to work is a fearless swing and a conservative target.
 
Perhaps the most profound recent example of ego avoid, the psychological term for playing to protect a lead, is Greg Owens painful collapse at the 2006 Arnold Palmer Invitational.
 
With a commanding lead over Rod Pampling with three to play at Bay Hill, the Englishman limped home, covering the last three in 4 over par to lose by one stroke. Owen has never recovered.
 
The line between playing conservative and playing with fear is as thin as a missed 3 footer, and most sports psychologist try to have their players create a game plan and stay with it, regardless of the circumstances or pressure.
 
What you want to do is play your game, said Dr. Bob Rotella. What youre saying (if you play prevent defense) is basically you dont think you can win. If thats what you want to do you better be really luck.
 
Coming down the stretch with a title on the line, however, can make a mental mouse of even the Tours hardest competitors, particularly when courses are littered with electronic scoreboards that leave no room for ambiguity.
 
But then many of the games experts have no problem with Sunday leaderboard watching.
 
I want to know, Smith said. I want to make it my mindset to win, not to make a stupid mistake doing something I didnt need to do.
 
Lucas Glover became the poster child for scoreboard gazing at Bethpages Black Course, spending almost as much time sizing up the cast assembled around him as he did studying that 8 footer he ran in at the 16th on Sunday at the U.S. Open.
 
I watch (leaderboard), absolutely, Glover said in New York. A football coach doesnt coach the final quarter of a game not knowing the score.
 
And major champions dont play to lose, a certainty right up there with death, taxes and Woods with a 54-hole lead . . . um, you get the idea.
 
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    In the battle of bros, Koepka 1-ups DJ

    By Rex HoggardJune 18, 2018, 1:12 am

    SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – It’s a scene that occurs on a regular basis at the Joey D Golf Training Center, frenzied workouts driven by an intense combination of competition and desire.

    Under the watchful eye of longtime PGA Tour trainer Joey Diovisalvi, Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson will turn even the most mundane elements of their workouts into winner-take-all contests – from the duo’s warmup on stationary bikes to the various exercises that have turned the twosome into a pair of the game’s most imposing figures.

    It was during one of these hyper-fueled sessions a few months ago when Koepka suggested he could become No. 1 world.

    “I think Brooks was 11th in the world at the time, and Dustin said, ‘Yeah, if you add a ‘1’ to that,’” Diovisalvi recalled. “Brooks said, ‘You wait and see; you want to come to my party and put the banner up?’ Dustin just laughed, ‘Not while I’m alive, it’s not happening.’”

    That rivalry, which is a friendly as it is genuine, was taken to a new level on Sunday at the U.S. Open when the duo set out for the final lap in the day’s penultimate group. Golf’s undisputed Bash Brothers going head-to-head after having traded titles at the last two U.S. Opens, the prototype of the modern professional playing on golf’s most demanding stage.

    To the New York masses, the twosome must have looked like the guy most likely to ask how long you’re going to be using the bench press at your local gym, a pair of golfing unicorns who have combined unrelenting power with wildly under-rated precision.


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    With apologies to all those who set out for the final round at Shinnecock Hills with the greatest expectations, this was always going to come down to either Koepka or Johnson.

    Koepka won his first U.S. Open in dominant fashion last year at Erin Hills and Johnson got on the board in 2016 at Oakmont, so it should have been no surprise that, as the duo went through their normal “game day” workout early Sunday together, there was the unspoken realization that the day’s competition was just beginning.

    “[Koepka] likes to beat DJ,” said Claude Harmon III, the swing coach for both men. “We’re in an era now where it’s a great time in golf that all the guys are friends and there are great friendships, but trust me – all these guys want to win. Brooks wants to beat everybody, including DJ who is his closest friend out here. He wants to beat him in the gym, in everything they do.”

    Even in the Official World Golf Ranking, which currently features Johnson atop the pack?

    “Absolutely, he tells him all the time,” Harmon said.

    Koepka won’t climb to No. 1 in world on Monday, but he did one-up his South Florida stablemate by becoming the first player since Curtis Strange, in 1989, to win back-to-back U.S. Opens.

    It was a perfectly Koepka performance.

    A day that began with a no small measure of apprehension following Saturday’s inexplicable setup snafu – that prompted some players to contend that the USGA had “lost” the golf course for the second consecutive championship at Shinnecock Hills – quickly settled into the kind of competitive grind for which the U.S. Open is known.

    Koepka broke out of a four-way tie for first place with a 20-footer for birdie at the second, added another at the third to go two strokes clear and appeared to be on cruise control. But then U.S. Opens, real U.S. Opens where par is a good score and the USGA dances dangerously close to the edge, are never that easy.

    The first crack came at the par-3 11th hole when Koepka airmailed the green and needed to convert a 12-footer for bogey. He scrambled again at the 12th with a 6-footer for par and salvaged his advantage at the 14th hole after finding the fescue with his drive.

    With Tommy Fleetwood – who became the sixth player to shoot 63 in a U.S. Open to settle into the clubhouse lead at 2 over par – watching from the range, Koepka walked to the 72nd tee with a two-stroke advantage. There was no suspense, no moments of anxiety, no reason to think he would allow this opportunity to slip away.

    For all the complaints about Saturday’s setup, which even USGA CEO Mike Davis said were justified, this was the kind of U.S. Open Koepka relishes.

    “This week is just back to a typical U.S. Open, where 1 over par wins the golf tournament,” said Koepka, who closed with a 68. “It's just a lot of grinding. But I couldn't be happier with the way I played.”

    Picking your favorite major is often like picking your favorite child – they are all special in their unique way – but Koepka had no problem giving his second turn as U.S. Open champion its proper place.

    This was special. Special because he outplayed Johnson, who closed with a 70 to finish in third place at 3 over. Special because of the workmanlike performance Shinnecock Hills demanded. And special because the last year hasn’t exactly been a celebration.

    Toward the end of 2017, Koepka began to feel pain in his left wrist. He would miss the Masters with a partially torn tendon and spend 3 ½ maddening months on his couch recovering.

    “We were worried that he wasn’t even going to be able to come here and defend,” said Koepka’s father, Bob. “I’m just thankful that he’s been able to recover. It’s been a long three months for him.”

    Although he didn’t start hitting full shots until the Monday after the Masters, his return to competitive form was nothing short of meteoric, even by modern standards. And when he finished runner-up at last month’s Fort Worth Invitational, just his fourth event back, his confidence quickly returned.

    “He’d never really been a golf nerd and I think he fell in love with golf again,” Harmon said. “When he came back there was something I hadn’t seen with him wanting to play again. He watched the Masters. He never watches the Masters.”

    He also was back in the gym, alongside Johnson, rekindling the duo’s ongoing bout of one-upmanship. Early Sunday during their pre-round workout it was the status quo for Koepka and Johnson, friendly banter that both lightens the mood and inspires excellence.

    But it was different once the two set out for the final round. There were no jokes, no trash talking, no talking of any kind, in fact.

    “I love Dustin. He's one of my best friends,” Koepka said. “To play alongside him, it was fun today. I was excited about it. I figured he would be the guy to beat. But I didn't talk to him today. Maybe I said something on [No.] 3, and that was about it.”

    There will be plenty to talk about next week when they renew what is one of the game’s most unique friendships and rivalries. Koepka won’t ascend to No. 1 in the world just yet, but he will hang a banner in Diovisalvi’s gym – 2018 U.S. Open champion – and Johnson wouldn’t miss that moment.

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    Balky putter dooms DJ's run for second U.S. Open

    By Will GrayJune 18, 2018, 12:31 am

    SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – While the course conditions during the final round of the U.S. Open were decidedly different than the day before, Dustin Johnson’s struggles on the greens remained the same.

    Johnson appeared in command of the tournament at the halfway point at Shinnecock Hills, building a four-shot lead as the only player under par. But he, like many of the leaders, fell victim to borderline third-round conditions and struggled to a 7-over 77.

    That still left him with a share of the lead at 3 over heading into the final round and a great chance to earn his second U.S. Open title in the last three years. Instead, he couldn’t keep pace with playing partner Brooks Koepka, shooting an even-par 70 to finish alone in third while Koepka went two shots better to successfully defend his title.


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    Johnson declined to speak with media following his round.

    Johnson was 2 over for the week heading to the back nine on Sunday, only one shot behind Koepka. But he made three bogeys on the inward half, including dropped shots on Nos. 11 and 14 that effectively ended his title chances.

    The culprit for Johnson’s regression was clear. After leading the field in strokes gained: putting through the first two rounds, he couldn’t get comfortable on the greens on the weekend.

    Johnson needed 38 putts to complete his third round, T-64 among the 67 players who made the cut, and his 35 final-round putts were T-63 in the same category.

    Despite the putting woes, Johnson has now finished T-4 or better at the U.S. Open four times in the last five years. In addition to his third-place showing this week and his win at Oakmont in 2016, he also tied for second at Chambers Bay in 2015 and was T-4 at Pinehurst the year prior.

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    Closing double bogey on Sunday costs Finau $217K

    By Will GrayJune 18, 2018, 12:18 am

    SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – Despite a costly final hole, Tony Finau had plenty to smile about after notching a career-best major finish at the U.S. Open.

    Finau made it past the 36-hole cut with only a shot to spare, and his third-round 66 came hours before the leaders played on a course that quickly became burnt to a crisp. Finau explained that it was “nuts” watching his name slowly creep up the leaderboard until he had a share of the 54-hole lead and a spot in Sunday’s final pairing alongside Daniel Berger, who, like Finau, shot a third-round 66 in easier conditions.

    But Finau struggled out of the gates in the final round, with consecutive bogeys on Nos. 2-4 to fall well off the pace while eventual champ Brooks Koepka birdied three of his first five. Finau eventually steadied the ship, making five birdies in the middle of his round and ultimately stood over a 20-foot birdie putt on No. 17 that would have brought him within a shot of Koepka’s lead.


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    “I don’t know what it is with this golf course. I can never get off to a good start,” Finau said. “It was that way every round. I don’t know what the deal was. I couldn’t get off to a good start any of the rounds.”

    Finau headed to the 72nd hole in third place, but a wayward drive led to a closing double bogey that left him in solo fifth at 5 over. It was his first top-5 in a major and paid $474,659, but that was $217,746 less than he would have earned with a par on the final hole to join Dustin Johnson in a two-way tie for third.

    Finau has never played in a Ryder Cup before, but he entered this week at No. 16 on the U.S. points race and will improve that standing with his performance at Shinnecock Hills. Throw in a T-10 finish in his Masters debut and the 28-year-old is officially compiling credentials that could give captain Jim Furyk something to think about come September.

    “Reflecting on the week, it’s a cool thing. It’s a goal of mine to be on the team,” Finau said. “I haven’t won this year. That’s something I want to do. But hopefully, just proving to the captains, whether I play myself onto the team or not, that, you know, I step up on the big stage and I can compete.”

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    Koepka watches as named engraved again on U.S. Open trophy

    By Golf Channel DigitalJune 18, 2018, 12:10 am

    For the second consecutive year, Brooks Koepka won the U.S. Open. So, once again he got to watch as his name was forever etched onto the trophy.