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Ready for the big reveal at Shinnecock

By Rex HoggardJune 13, 2018, 6:07 pm

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – It’s a bomber’s golf course. It’s a second-shot layout. The fairways are wide, greens firm. There’s a short list of would-be winners; parity has made this a wide-open Open.

This Shinnecock Hills Open, the fifth played on the east-end jewel, is a litany of questions without answers.

If history is any indication, the 118th edition will be something closer to what we expect from America’s national championship. This has all the markings of being your father’s Open – tough pars, tall rough and attrition.

In 2004, the last time the U.S. Open made it this far up the Long Island Expressway, the winning score was 4 under par, and in ’95 Corey Pavin played in a perfect U.S. Open manner on his way to an even-par victory.

This week’s championship may promise to be something more familiar – something more punitive – than the last few experiments, but it doesn’t clearly identify a favorite.

Fresh off his dominant performance last week in Memphis, Dustin Johnson has gotten the nod from Las Vegas, starting the week as the betting favorite for all the right reasons. But that nod ignores the current competitive landscape.

According to world ranking math, six players could be ranked No. 1 on Monday – Johnson (the current No. 1), Justin Thomas, Justin Rose, Jordan Spieth, Jon Rahm and Rory McIlroy – depending on how things play out over the next four days.


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To put that in context, when the U.S. Open was last played at Shinnecock Hills in ’04, Tiger Woods was No. 1 and would remain there, unchallenged for the next four months.

In ’04, the gap between the first- and second-ranked players (Woods and Ernie Els, respectively) was 1.91 average ranking points; and the gulf between Woods and the sixth-ranked player (Mike Weir) was 6.24 average ranking points.

Johnson’s current lead over No. 2 Thomas is a razor-thin .29 average ranking points; and DJ’s advantage over No. 6 McIlroy is just 2.22 points.

Rarely in golf can parity be so clearly quantified, and rarely has the competitive congestion led to a collective confidence.

“The only reason I'm here is to win. If I wasn't, I wouldn't have signed up,” said Brooks Koepka, last year’s champion. “I think everyone here is trying to win. Everyone thinks they're going to win, and they should. When you come to a golf tournament, you're preparing to win. You're not going to be satisfied with second place. I don't think I've ever heard anybody say, ‘Man, I'm glad I finished second.’”

The list of potential champions goes as deep into the tee sheet as one’s imagination. But what kind of test awaits this week’s field?

The 2004 championship at Shinnecock Hills is widely considered a bust in terms of set up for the USGA. A golf course that was already on the edge tumbled into the unplayable abyss on Sunday when even well-played tee shots on the par-3 seventh hole began bounding hopelessly into one bad spot after another.

“It's a very difficult job to find the line of testing the best players to the greatest degree and then making it carnival golf,” said Phil Mickelson, runner-up at Shinnecock Hills in ’04 who might be the week’s most compelling story line with the career Grand Slam hanging in the balance. “It's a very fine line, and it's not a job I would want. And I know that the USGA is doing the best they can to find that line, and a lot of times they do, and sometimes they cross over it.”

Following what some considered Open Light last year at Erin Hills – where Koepka won at 16 under – and in 2015 at Chambers Bay, many envisioned this championship a perfect pathway back to something more familiar. Golf’s toughest test, as the U.S. Open is considered in most circles, had become a bit too user friendly.

Shinnecock Hills is a classic design with all the central elements of a demanding test, from aches of knee-high fescue rough to wildly pitched greens that leave little, if any, room for error.

“I'm obviously not that old, but when I watched U.S. Opens on TV and saw these long, narrow corridors of narrow fairways and thick rough, that's what I was used to at a U.S. Open,” McIlroy said. “If you look at the venues that are coming up, they're very traditional venues, venues like Oakmont, Winged Foot, Pebble Beach. Maybe you'll see more of what we perceive as a traditional U.S. Open setup.”

Shinnecock Hills certainly fits into the notion that the USGA is gravitating back toward something closer to the association’s original DNA, but if this week’s championship is a chance to put some teeth back into the game’s toughest test the appetite for that kind of pendulum swing seems to be lacking.

Mike Davis, the association’s executive director, has been outspoken on this front. There will not be a sequel to the fiasco that defined the ’04 U.S. Open this week. Technology will help, with the USGA no longer relying on the inexact science of a Stimpmeter to measure firmness, and the USGA’s modus operandi under Davis has been to err on the side of the player, not protecting par.

 “I've never, since I've been at the USGA and it's been almost 30 years, heard anybody say we're shooting for even par. Never heard it. I know people think we talk about it, but it's never happened,” Davis said. “But we talk about incessantly how do we get the course to be really a great test of golf? As we say, get all 14 clubs dirty.”

What that means for this week’s field is anyone’s guess, but then that seems to be the status quo at a U.S. Open with more questions than answers.

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Woods' final round is highest-rated FEC telecast ever

By Golf Channel DigitalSeptember 24, 2018, 9:05 pm

We've heard it a million times: Tiger Woods doesn't just move the needle, he IS the needle.

Here's more proof.

NBC Sports Group's final-round coverage of Woods claiming his 80th career victory in the Tour Championship earned a 5.21 overnight rating, making it the highest-rated telecast in the history of the FedExCup Playoffs and the highest-rated PGA Tour telecast in 2018 (excluding majors).

The rating was up 206 percent over 2017's Tour Championship.


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Coverage peaked from 5:30-6PM ET (7.19) as Woods finished his round and as Justin Rose was being crowned the FedExCup champion. That number trailed only the 2018 peaks for the Masters (11.03) and PGA Championship (8.28). The extended coverage window (1:30-6:15 PM ET) posted a 4.35 overnight rating, which is the highest-rated Tour Championship telecast on record.

Sunday’s final round also saw 18.4 million minutes streamed across NBC Sports Digital platforms (up 561 percent year-over-year), and becomes the most-streamed NBC Sports Sunday round (excluding majors) on record.

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Woods' win makes us wonder, what's next?

By Ryan LavnerSeptember 24, 2018, 6:35 pm

The red shirt and ground-shaking roars.

The steely glare and sweet swings.

The tactical precision and ruthless efficiency.

If not for the iPhone-wielding mob following his every move, you’d swear that golf had been transported to the halcyon days of the early 2000s.

The Tiger Time Machine kicked into overdrive at East Lake, where Woods won for the first time in 1,876 days and suddenly put two of the sport’s most hallowed numbers – 82 and 18 – back in play.

“I didn’t understand how people could say he lost this and lost that,” said Hank Haney, Woods’ former swing coach. “He is so good. He’s Tiger Woods. He’s won 79 times. If he can swing, he can win again.”

The only disappointing part of win No. 80 is that Woods will have to wait four months for another meaningful chance to build upon it. That’s a shame, because all of the pieces are in place for him to make a sustained run, and the Tour Championship might just be the start of an unimaginable final act.

A season that began with questions about whether a 42-year-old Woods could survive a full schedule with no setbacks ended with him saving his best for last, when his younger, healthier peers seemed to be gassed. Taking his recovery week by week, Woods ended up making 18 starts – his second-heaviest workload since 2005 – and never publicly complained of any discomfort, only the occasional stiffness that comes with having a fused lower spine.

Remember when Woods’ tanking world ranking was punch-line material? Now he’s all the way up to No. 13 – not bad for a guy who was 1,199th when he returned to competition last December at the Hero World Challenge. Nowhere close to reaching his 40-event minimum divisor, he’ll continue to accrue points and charge up the rankings, putting the game’s top players on notice.


Final FedExCup standings

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The victory at East Lake moves Woods only two shy of Sam Snead’s all-time PGA Tour wins record (82), a goal that seemed unthinkable a year and a half ago, when he was bedridden following the Hail Mary fusion surgery. And for those wondering whether he’s capable of chasing down Big Jack, remember that Woods almost picked off two majors this summer, at Carnoustie and Bellerive, with a body and swing that was constantly evolving. 

Indeed, in an era of TrackMans and coaching stables designed to maximize a player’s performance, Woods has refreshingly gone back to his roots. It always seemed incongruous, watching the game’s most brilliant golf mind scrutinize down-the-line swing video, and so this year he has been a solo act, relying on old feels to guide his new move. The credit for this resurgence is his alone. 

Sure, there were growing pains, lots of them, and for months each tournament turned into golf’s version of Whack-a-Mole, as yet another issue arose. The two clubs that most consistently held Woods back were his driver and putter, but recent improvements portend well for the future.

After wayward tee shots cost him the PGA, Woods changed the loft and shaft on his TaylorMade driver. For years, even while injured, he violently attacked the ball in a vain attempt to hang with the big hitters. But these tweaks to his gamer (resulting in lower swing speed and carry distance) were a concession that accuracy was more vital to his success than power. His newfound discipline was rewarded: He ended the season with four consecutive weeks of positive strokes gained: off the tee statistics, and on Sunday he put on a clinic while Rory McIlroy, one of the game’s preeminent drivers, thrashed around in the trees. Woods is still plenty long, closing out his victory with a 348-yard rocket on 18, and from the middle of the fairway he can rely on his vintage iron play. 

His troubles with the putter weren’t as quick of a fix. Frustrated with his inconsistent performance on the greens, Woods briefly flirted with other models before rekindling his love affair with his old Scotty Cameron, the trusty putter with which he’s won 13 of his 14 majors. It’s exceedingly rare for a player to overcome the frayed nerve endings and putt better in his 40s than his 30s, but Woods was downright masterful on East Lake’s greens.

“It’s more satisfaction than anything,” said Woods’ caddie, Joe LaCava. “People have no idea how much work he put into this.”

By almost any statistical measure, Woods’ season-long numbers suggest that he’s already back among the game’s elite – even after struggling to walk and swing for the past four years. He’s the best iron player in the game. He finished the season ranked seventh in strokes gained: tee to green. And after his normally stellar short game went MIA for a few years, his play around the greens appeared as sharp as ever.

And so on Sunday, while watching Woods school the top 30 players on Tour, even Johnny Miller got caught up in the latest edition of Tigermania.

“He’s not looking like he could win a couple more,” Miller said. “He’s looking like he could win A LOT more.”

Where Woods’ story is headed – to No. 1 in the world, to the top of Mt. Nicklaus, to the operating table – is anyone’s guess, because this comeback has already defied any reasonable logic or expectation.

He’s come back from confidence-shattering performances at Phoenix (chip yips) and Memorial (85) and even his own media-day event where he humiliatingly rinsed a series of wedge shots.

He’s come back from four back surgeries and pain so debilitating that his kids once found him face down in the backyard; pain so unbearable that he used to keep a urine bucket next to his bed, because he couldn’t schlep his battered body to the bathroom.

He’s come back from an addiction so deep that in May 2017 police found him slumped over the steering wheel of his Mercedes, five drugs coursing through his system, a shocking and sad DUI arrest that was the catalyst for this clear-eyed comeback.

All of the months of unhappiness and uncertainty nearly came pouring out afterward – the culmination of a remarkable journey from turmoil to redemption that ranks among the most unlikely in sports history. Woods fought back tears as thousands formed a big green mosh pit and chanted his name, a surreal scene even for this larger-than-life legend. Hugging LaCava, Woods said into his caddie’s ear, over and over: “We did it! We did it! We did it!” 

“He’s pumped up,” LaCava said later. “I’ve never seen him this excited.”

And not just for this moment, but for the future.

The prospects are as tantalizing as ever. 

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DJ may keep cross-handed grip for Ryder Cup

By Rex HoggardSeptember 24, 2018, 4:29 pm

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – As he’s proven in the past Dustin Johnson isn’t averse to switching things up when it comes to his putting, but this was extreme even for him.

Johnson switched to a cross-handed grip on the sixth hole during Saturday’s third round at the Tour Championship and continued to use the same grip through the final round.

It was the first time he’d putted cross-handed in competition and the first time he switched his grip mid-round.


Ryder Cup: Articles, photos and videos


“I did it a few times on the putting green. Sometimes I do it on the putting green just to get my setup a little bit better because it just levels out my shoulders,” said Johnson, who closed his week at East Lake with a 67 and finished alone in third place. “I was putting well. I hit some bad putts for the first five holes, so after I hit a really bad putt for eagle on 6, the next one I tried it, I made it, so I kept it going.”

Johnson, who moved back into the top spot in the World Golf Ranking thanks to his third-place finish, was encouraged by his putting on the weekend but he was vague when asked if he planned to putt cross-handed this week at the Ryder Cup.

“We're going to stick with it for now. We'll try it,” he said.

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For the U.S. team, advice from the gridiron

By Damon HackSeptember 24, 2018, 4:01 pm

Seve Ballesteros might have been a magician with a sand wedge, but he was truly hell on wheels.

As Europe’s captain at the 1997 Ryder Cup in his native Spain, Ballesteros led his team with a heavy foot, racing across the emerald landscape in a souped-up Club Car festooned with blue flags.

“All week long it seemed like there were four Seves or five Seves,” recalls Lee Janzen, who went 2-1-0 for the United States. “He was everywhere. I’d turn around and look up and he’d be following our group, and then he was gone, and then he was back with our group again. I found out years later that there were tunnels at the golf course. I asked [‘97 U.S. captain] Tom Kite and he said he knew about the tunnels, too, but it didn’t seem like he knew about ALL the tunnels.”

The most infamous golf cart in the history of the Ryder Cup is, mercifully, far from Paris, but somehow the skid marks from Valderrama remain.

Europe’s 14 ½-to-13 ½ win over the United States 25 years ago began a streak that has lasted over two decades, a stretch of European dominance and long American flights home.

While the United States has made large strides in teamwork and bonding, the work of its 2014 task force must be judged as incomplete until the Americans find a way in Europe.

It hasn’t happened since Bryson DeChambeau was 10 days old.

“I’m getting tired of saying I was on the last team to win on the road,” says Jim Gallagher Jr., who defeated Ballesteros in singles as a Ryder Cup rookie in 1993. “That was the horse-and-buggy era.”

The American road futility has not gone unnoticed. It has transcended the golf world to the point that figures throughout the sports world have watched as five straight American teams have returned from Europe empty-handed - from Valderrama, the Belfry, the K Club, Celtic Manor and Gleneagles.

One year, Seve shrinks the course, tightening the doglegs and taking driver out of the hands of Tiger and Phil (1997). Or Paul McGinley makes the big putt (2002). Or Darren Clarke proves an inspiration (2006). Or there’s rainsuitgate, golf's version of a wardrobe malfunction (2010). Or Jamie Donaldson starts knocking down flagsticks (2014).

It’s always been something - the vagaries of travel, body clocks out of rhythm, fewer friendly faces in the crowd and missed putts.

So how do you win on the road?

“Whatever you’ve done to be successful in a Ryder Cup at home you try to do the same thing on the road, as far as preparation, meals, meetings, practice, timing, as much as you can make it a home situation,” says Dan Reeves, who participated in nine combined Super Bowls as an NFL running back and coach. “Stay in as nice a place as you can. Do you have a pre-game meal? One thing you’ll talk about with your team is that they’ll be in Paris for several days.”

Reeves was the Atlanta Falcons' head coach for Super Bowl XXXIII in Miami when one of his top defensive players was arrested for soliciting an undercover policewoman the night before the game.

The Falcons went on to lose to Reeves’ former team - the Denver Broncos - 34-19 in what has become one of the most well-known cautionary tales in sports.

“There are a lot of distractions on the road,” Reeves says. “Stay focused on what the job is, have things arranged to where they can do things as a group instead of going out and getting into any kind of trouble.”

R.C. Slocum, the former head coach of Texas A&M, also took his road preparation seriously, once going as far as calling Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio for advice on a road game against the high-powered University of Hawaii.

“I called the military and said, ‘Tell me about moving troops from one time zone to another,’” Slocum says. “They gave me a study. The typical response for a long airplane ride is for adults to drink alcohol and coffee and for [college] kids to have carbonated drinks. If you have a few alcoholic beverages at 40,000 feet, you are going to have sleep issues and hydration issues. We put a quart bottle of water in every kid’s seat. ‘Drink this whole bottle before we get there.’”

Slocum says the study also told him to get his players on the time zone of the arrival city as soon as possible.

“The best thing to do when you land,” Slocum says, “is to go get some exercise.”

The coach put together a robust itinerary for his team that varied from a Polynesian dinner show to a solemn trip to the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.

After calling several coaches of teams who’d lost road games in Hawaii, Slocum packed extra sunscreen after being told of visiting athletes striking out to Hawaii’s beaches and ending up too sunburnt to comfortably wear shoulder pads.

“Those are things you can control,” Slocum says.

His Aggies won, 28-13.

What advice would he give to U.S. captain Jim Furyk and his 12 players as they try to unlock their own road riddle?

“This is a business trip at the highest level,” Slocum says. “They are so privileged to be on the team and represent the United States. They owe it to each other to be at their best. Anything a guy does against that is cheating his teammates and his country and all the people back home rooting for him. To play on the biggest stage is an opportunity that only rolls around a few times.”

That stage has only grown bigger through the years, as evidenced by the 50,000 fans that attended Hazeltine each day.

Some organizers have predicted 60,000 to 65,000 daily at Le Golf National.

And most won’t be donning red, white and blue.

“It’s a bit like in football in that you want to keep them quiet, but the louder they scream and the better you play, that’s what’s really energizing,” says Joe Theismann, who won Super Bowl XVII as the Washington Redskins' quarterback. “When you reach an elite status as an athlete, the ability to focus and block things out is paramount. I played in front of 100,000 people and I could still hear a pin drop.”

Theismann still remembers leading Washington to a 1983 road win against the Detroit Lions at the Pontiac Silverdome.

“Loudest stadium I’ve ever played in,” he says. “It was built down into the ground so the sound would circle around you and sit on top of you. Coming out of that game, you felt like you accomplished something.”

At Ryder Cups in Europe, that sound has been chants of “Ole, ole, ole, ole,” a soundtrack on an endless loop.

“You want to thrive in that chaos,” says former Green Bay Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk. “That’s the true test of mental strength.”

Hawk imagined himself standing in the middle of the United States team room on the eve of the Ryder Cup.

“That’s a hell of a group to be addressing, a lot of major championships,” Hawk says. “I’d say ‘Look at your left and right. This is us against them, and we are in hostile territory. You’ve got each other, your wives, your family, and there is nobody else. Let’s go out here and lean on your brother. You go into Paris and beat up on Europe, you all will be talking about it for the next 20, 30, 40 years.”

Much better than talking about Seve’s old golf cart.