Spieth faces difficult road toward second green jacket

By Rex HoggardApril 10, 2016, 3:26 am

AUGUSTA, Ga. – It’s not supposed to be like this.

The Masters is the feel-good story to the drama that is the U.S. Open and the intrigue of the Open Championship.

Fans flock to Augusta National to rattle the pines with cheers, not recoil from one pile-up after another. But then, it was always going to be like this.

After Jordan Spieth ran the table in 2015 with an 18-under total that matched the tournament record, the seeds of spite were planted early and often heading into this year’s tournament.

On Tuesday players talked of greens with Sunday speeds, and the only sound that could be heard on Thursday was the hum of the Sub-Air system draining the putting surfaces of much-needed moisture.

We want birdies and eagles and heroic charges, but what we have been given is pars and bogeys and harried moments.

Even the man who would be king, Spieth, felt the cold sting of the tougher side of Augusta National this week. After cruising through a first-round 66 the world No. 2 has posted cards of 74-73 to set an intriguing Sunday stage.

Masters Tournament: Day 3 Tracker

Masters Tournament: Articles, photos and videos

After opening his Masters career with nine consecutive at- or under-par rounds, Spieth has spent the last two blustery days trying to keep things together.

“I think it will be tough to put it behind me,” Spieth admitted. “I think I will, but that wasn't a fun last couple holes to play from the position I was in. I'm not going to dodge the question by any means. It's not going to be fun tonight for a little while, and hopefully I just sleep it off and it's fine tomorrow.”

It could have been a much different scenario.

With his second birdie of the day at No. 8, Spieth extended his lead to three strokes and appeared headed for another Sunday celebration like the one he enjoyed last year when he began the final round four strokes clear of the pack.

But things began to go sideways when he three-putted the 11th hole for double bogey, and he compounded the problem with a pair of wayward drives at Nos. 17 and 18 to finish bogey, double bogey for a 3-under total and a one-stroke lead.

Sunday will not be a “walk in the Georgia pines,” as Tom Watson waxed on Friday following his last Masters round, not with six players within three strokes and a Spieth game that is something less than 100 percent.

Unlike last year, Spieth won’t be able to play a prevent defense on Sunday, and that reality was etched into his face following a windswept day.

“With very little wind tomorrow, someone gets on a run and shoots 6, 7 under, I know I have to shoot a significant under-par round in order to win this tournament, when I could have played a different style of golf like I did on Sunday last year,” Spieth said.

Spieth could take some solace in the final act of this year’s Masters in his company atop a crowded leaderboard, if not the margin of his advantage.

PGA Tour rookie Smylie Kaufman is a stroke back and will be playing for the first time from the final pairing on Sunday after a round-best 69.

As unsteady as Spieth looked coming down the stretch in Round 3, Kaufman, with birdies at Nos. 13, 14 and 16, was the lone highlight from a day that offered few reasons to cheer.

Still, the 24-year-old acknowledged that heading out in the last two-ball with Spieth brings an entirely new set of challenges.

“He's probably 1000-0,” Kaufman said when asked his record against Spieth when the two played junior and amateur golf. “He's always beating me. Granted, he was so much better than I was as a junior and amateur. I was kind of a late bloomer in that regard.”

Although Kaufman rallied for his lone Tour victory earlier this season with a final-round 61, most will be looking to the likes of players named Matsuyama, Day, Johnson and Langer to push Spieth.

That’s right, Langer.

On Wednesday Gary Player was asked if he thought Jack Nicklaus’ record of being the oldest player to win the Masters at 46 would ever be broken and the Black Knight didn’t hold back.

“I've always said that a man at 50 would win the Masters and I was ridiculed,” Player railed. “Raymond Floyd needed to birdie No. 17 with a 9-iron, and he would have won the Masters at 49, nearly 50. Don't forget, Julius Boros won the PGA at 48. People forget about these things.”

On the 30th anniversary of Nicklaus’ historic victory in 1986, certainly no one would forget it if the 58-year-old German shattered a mark many still believe is unbreakable.

“If I play my best, I can shoot 4 or 5 under tomorrow, if the conditions are a little bit better,” Langer said. “But so can Jordan Spieth or any of the others on the leaderboard, so it all depends how the rest of the other 15 guys do. I can only play my game and see how that holds up.”

Of course, there is still a chance the stars align in the desired position and Spieth is challenged by those he is most often associated with, most notably Rory McIlroy and Jason Day. Until now it had been nothing more than water-cooler talk – theoretical debates with no right answer.

To be fair, McIlroy didn’t have his best stuff on a swirling Saturday, but on Day 3 at the Masters the metaphysical was given a healthy dollop of the material.

The esoteric debate over who, if both players are at their best, would prevail in a duel between Spieth and McIlroy – power vs. pure putting – now has a quantifiable data point.

Spieth clipped McIlroy, who struggled to find fairways and failed to make a single birdie, by four strokes after the Northern Irishman ballooned to a 77. That outcome, of course, means nothing in the big picture, Spieth will tell you as much.

Whatever confidence Spieth may have drawn from clipping McIlroy, who is five strokes off the lead, was quickly dismissed with a quick glance at a leaderboard as backed up as Sunday traffic on Washington Road.

Unlike last year’s romp to his first green jacket, Spieth will face a much more demanding and different test on this Sunday, both on the course and the leaderboard.

Getty Images

Four players vying for DJ's No. 1 ranking at Open

By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 8:41 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Four players have an opportunity to overtake Dustin Johnson for world No. 1 this week.

According to Golf Channel world-rankings guru Alan Robinson, Justin Thomas, Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm each can grab the top spot in the world ranking.

Thomas’ path is the easiest. He would return to No. 1 with either a win and Johnson finishing worse than solo third, or even a solo runner-up finish as long as Johnson finishes worse than 49th.

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

Twenty years after his auspicious performance in The Open, Rose can get to No. 1 for the first time with a victory and Johnson finishing worse than a two-way tie for third.

Kopeka can rise to No. 1 if he wins consecutive majors, assuming that his good friend posts worse than a three-way tie for third.

And Rahm can claim the top spot with a win this week, a Johnson missed cut and a Thomas finish of worse than solo second.   

Johnson’s 15-month reign as world No. 1 ended after The Players. He wasn’t behind Thomas for long, however: After a tie for eighth at the Memorial, Johnson blew away the field in Memphis and then finished third at the U.S. Open to solidify his position at the top.

Getty Images

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, GolfChannel.com 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.

@kharms27 on Instagram

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.

Getty Images

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.”

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

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.