Royal Lytham favors no one and everyone

By Rex HoggardJuly 18, 2012, 3:13 pm

LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England – If history holds at Royal Lytham & St. Annes it will be a ball-striker who wins this week’s Open Championship, a short-game wizard, a driver, a putter, a proven commodity, an up-and-comer.

In short, there is no short list of contenders for the 141st Open, nor short answers, although if the dialogue so far is any indication it seems plausible that something surreal is in the making.

On consecutive days, Lee Westwood was asked about his “groin” (injury), Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews chief Peter Dawson was grilled as to the number of “bunker rakers” on hand for the year’s third major and one car park was deemed “unplayable” by scribes because of, well . . . standing water.

Such is the scrutiny at the game’s oldest member-member, and all this before the first meaningful shot is sent into the grey, damp skies.

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As for who will round the ancient links in the fewest strokes depends on who you ask. Tiger Woods – who begins a potentially eventful week vying for his 15th major championship, fourth claret jug and, at least mathematically, the world’s top ranking – figures Lytham for a ball-striker’s ballpark. Think Royal Liverpool with greener grass circa 2006.

“The list of champions here have all been just wonderful ball-strikers because you have to be able to shape the golf ball both ways here, you can’t just hit it one way,” Woods said.

Woods’ “Exhibit A” includes David Duval, who won the Open the last time it was played at Lytham (2001) with perhaps the best driver in the game at the time, Bobby Jones (1926) and Gary Player (1974).

A few hours later, Luke Donald sat in the same chair and explained why he likes his chances despite a driver that, relative to his position as the world No. 1, can be considered on the balky side of brilliant.

“Seve (Ballesteros, a two-time Open winner at Lytham) was known as someone that would hit it wild off the tee and use his short game to get out of trouble,” said Donald, who missed the cut at last month’s U.S. Open. “No matter where he was he felt like he could hole a shot. I’ve got to go into this tournament with that kind of fun attitude, that no matter how I’m hitting it there’s always a way to make a score.”

And if Donald’s take sounds more like rationalizing than reality, consider that when Ballesteros won the Open in 1979 he hit his driver nine times in the final round, found just one fairway and was 14-for-15 in par saves from bunkers for the week.

Speaking of which, Lytham’s 205 bunkers are every bit the hazard officials had hoped they would be, a truth compounded by steady rain this week which has left standing water in some of the pitted caverns, and the rough is what one would expect from an English summer – that is to say gnarly and deep.

But if anyone enjoys the clarity of an unbiased mind it is Westwood, the 39-year-old Englishman who, whether he likes it or not, has assumed the title as the “best player without a major.”

When it was suggested on Tuesday that Westwood would be a solid pick this week because of his ball-striking prowess he bristled: “If that's what it takes to win around here. People have said that the previous winners have all got a great short game,” he smiled.  “And apparently I haven't got much of a short game.”

If the tenor of the conversation seems a tad divergent it is by design. Perhaps more so than any other Open rota venue, Lytham is open to dramatically varied interpretations – one man’s walk in the park is another’s forced march.

Lytham defies definition beyond what can be gleaned from its list of champions, from the machine-like Duval to the magician that was Ballesteros the only connecting thread is each player’s status before, and after, his Lytham Open.

In simplest terms, there are no one-off champions. With respect to each winner’s career, a victory at Lytham seems to demand a complete resume regardless of strengths and weaknesses. It is a testament to the seaside linksland that the normal lament that major championship golf has been reduced to a putting contest is largely silenced here along the Irish Sea.

“Most PGA Tour events are decided by the shortest shots (putting); this is the longer the shot the more important it is,” Geoff Ogilvy said. “You’ve got no chance if you’re missing fairways. There’s plenty of space out there, you just have to hit quality shots.”

Perhaps Lytham eschews simple clarification, a no-frills field that favors neither ball-striker (Woods and Westwood) nor plodder (Donald).

It’s a reality supported by the United Kingdom’s ubiquitous betting houses. On the eve of the championship, Woods remained the favorite but his odds had dropped to 10 to 1 despite a run that includes three victories in his last eight Tour starts.

Westwood, Rory McIlroy – undone last year at Royal St. George’s by bad weather – and Donald trail Woods closely in the odds, but if Lytham proves as adept at identifying both pedigree and potential as it has been in the past the list of possible winners is as varied as the types of games that play well on the English gem.

Who will win? A ball-striker, a short-game wizard, a driver, a putter, a proven commodity, an up-and-comer.

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Els: Tiger playing well validates his generation

By Doug FergusonMarch 21, 2018, 12:42 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Tiger Woods has come close to looking like the player who ruled golf for the better part of 15 years, and Ernie Els is happy to see it.

Never mind that Els was on the losing end to Woods more than any other player.

He speaks for his generation of Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and others. Els keeps hearing about the depth of talent being greater than ever, and he has seen it. But he gets weary listening to suggestions that Woods might not have 79 PGA Tour victories if he had to face this group.

''I'm just glad he's playing like I know he can play to validate me – validate me, Phil and Vijay,'' Els said. ''We weren't bad players. This guy was a special player. To see him back, playing special stuff again ... is great for the game.''

Generational debates are nothing new.

Every generation was better than the next one. Then again, Jack Nicklaus used to lament that Woods was lacking competition from players who had more experience winning majors, such as Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, Tom Watson and Lee Trevino, Nick Faldo and Seve Ballesteros.

Mickelson, Els and Singh combined to win 12 majors. Els says Woods won 14 on his own because he was that much better.

Does it get under his skin to hear fans rave about this generation's players?

''It doesn't (tick) me off. Can you imagine how it must (tick) Tiger off?'' he said. ''He was leaps and bounds the best player. People forget very quickly, and then you see special players like we have now, the younger generation. But I know what I played against. You can't take anything away from anybody.''

Doug Ferguson is a golf writer for The Associated Press

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Recovering Thomas thinks Match Play could help cause

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 10:07 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – It’s been a tough couple of days for Justin Thomas, and he hasn’t played an event in three weeks.

The world’s second-ranked player had his wisdom teeth removed on March 7 following the WGC-Mexico Championship and has been recovering ever since.

“I'm feeling OK. As funny as it is, as soon as I got over my wisdom teeth, I got a little strep throat,” Thomas said on Tuesday at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. “I was pretty worried yesterday, to be honest, how I was going to be doing, but I feel a lot better today and just keep taking medicine and hopefully it will be good.”

Thomas, who is listed in the Tour media guide as 5-foot-10, 145 pounds, said he lost about 6 pounds when he had his wisdom teeth removed and has struggled to put that weight back on because of his bout with strep throat.

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As a result, his energy levels are low, which is a particular concern considering the marathon nature of the Match Play, which could include as many as seven rounds if he were to advance to Sunday’s championship match. Thomas, however, said the format could actually make things easier this week.

“I told my dad, I only have to beat one person each day. I don't have to beat the whole field,” said Thomas, who has won just one match in two starts at the Match Play. “If it was stroke play then I may have a little harder time. But hopefully each day I'll get better and better. Who knows, maybe that will help me win a match in this golf tournament, because I've had a pretty hard time in the past.”

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Spieth thought Mickelson blew him off as a kid

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 7:50 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Phil Mickelson is widely recognized as one of the PGA Tour’s most accommodating players when it comes to the fans and signing autographs.

Lefty will famously spend hours after rounds signing autographs, but sometimes perception can deviate from reality, as evidenced by Jordan Spieth’s encounter with Mickelson years ago when he was a junior golfer.

“I think I was at the [AT&T] Byron Nelson with my dad and Phil Mickelson and Davis Love were on the putting green. I was yelling at them, as I now get annoyed while I'm practicing when I'm getting yelled at, and they were talking,” Spieth recalled. “When they finished, Phil was pulled off in a different direction and Davis came and signed for me. And I thought for the longest time that Phil just blew me off. And Davis was like the nicest guy. And Phil, I didn't care for as much for a little while because of that.”

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Entering his sixth full season on Tour, Spieth now has a drastically different perspective on that day.

“[Mickelson] could have been late for media. He could have been having a sponsor obligation. He could have been going over to sign for a kid’s area where there was a hundred of them,” Spieth said. “There's certainly been kids that probably think I've blown them off, too, which was never my intention. It would have never been Phil's intention either.”

Spieth said he has spoken with Mickelson about the incident since joining the Tour.

“He probably responded with a Phil-like, ‘Yeah, I knew who you were, and I didn't want to go over there and sign it,’ something like that,” Spieth laughed. “I’ve gotten to see him in person and really see how genuine he is with everybody he comes in contact with. Doesn't matter who it is. And he's a tremendous role model and I just wasn't aware back then.”

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This week, let the games(manship) begin

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 7:47 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – The gentleman’s game is almost entirely devoid of anything even approaching trash talk or gamesmanship.

What’s considered the norm in other sports is strictly taboo in golf - at least that’s the standard for 51 weeks out of the year. That anomaly, however, can be wildly entertaining.

During Monday’s blind draw to determine this week’s 16 pods, Pat Perez was the first to suggest that this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play is the exception to the stoic rule on the PGA Tour.

“Me and Branden [Grace] played a nine-hole match today and were chirping at each other the entire time,” Perez laughed. “Stuff like, ‘go in the trees.’ We were laughing about it, I didn’t get mad, I hit it in the trees.”

Although Perez and Grace may have been on the extreme end of the trash-talk spectrum, it’s widely understood that unlike the steady diet of stroke-play stops in professional golf, the Match Play and the Ryder Cup are both chances to test some of the game’s boundaries.

“There’s been a couple of different instances, both in the Ryder Cup. I can't share them with you, I'm sorry,” laughed Jordan Spieth, before adding. “I think they [the comments] were indifferent to me and helped [U.S. partner Patrick Reed].

Often the gamesmanship is subtle, so much so an opponent probably doesn’t even realize what’s happening.

Jason Day, for example, is a two-time winner of this event and although he was reluctant to go into details about all of his “tricks,” he did explain his mindset if he finds himself trailing in a match.

“Always walk forward in front of the person that you're playing against, just so you're letting them know that you're pushing forward and you're also letting them know that you're still hanging around,” Day explained. “People feed off body language. If I'm looking across and the guy's got his shoulders slumped and his head is down, you can tell he's getting frustrated, that's when you push a little bit harder.”

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Some moments are not so innocent, as evidenced by a story from Paul Casey from a match during his junior days growing up in England.

“I remember a player’s ball was very close to my line, as his coin was very close to my line and we were still both about 10 feet away and he kind of looked at me,” Casey recalled. “I assumed he looked at me to confirm whether his marker was in my line and it needed to be moved. I said, ‘That's OK there.’ So he picked [his coin] up. And then of course he lost his ability to understand English all of a sudden.”

While the exploits this week won’t be nearly as egregious, there have been a handful of heated encounters at the Match Play. In 2015 when this event was played at Harding Park in San Francisco, Keegan Bradley and Miguel Angel Jimenez went nose to nose when the Spaniard attempted to intervene in a ruling that Bradley was taking and the incident even spilled over into the locker room after the match.

But if those types of encounters are rare, there’s no shortage of mind games that will take place over the next few days at Austin Country Club.

“It's part of it. It should be fun,” Spieth said. “There should be some gamesmanship. That's the way it is in every other sport, we just never play one-on-one or team versus team like other sports do. That's why at times it might seem way out of the ordinary. If every tournament were match play, I don't think that would be unusual.”

It also helps heat things up if opponents have some history together. On Tuesday, Rory McIlroy was asked if he’s run across any gamesmanship at the Match Play. While the Northern Irishman didn’t think there would be much trash talking going on this week, he did add with a wry smile, “Patrick Reed isn’t in my bracket.”

McIlroy and Reed went head-to-head in an epic singles duel at the 2016 Ryder Cup, which the American won 1 up. The duo traded plenty of clutch shots during the match, with Reed wagging his finger at McIlroy following a particularly lengthy birdie putt and McIlroy spurring the crowd with roars of, “I can’t hear you.”

It was an example of how chippy things can get at the Match Play that when McIlroy was asked if he had any advice for Spieth, who drew Reed in his pod this week, his answer had a bit of a sharp edge.

“Don't ask for any drops,” laughed McIlroy, a not-so-subtle reference to Reed’s comment last week at Bay Hill after being denied free relief by a rules official, “I guess my name needs to be Jordan Spieth, guys,” Reed said on Sunday.

Put another way, this is not your grandfather’s game. This is the Match Play where trash talking and gamesmanship are not only acceptable, but can also be extremely entertaining.