Stenson lurking near 36-hole lead

By Rex HoggardAugust 12, 2016, 7:42 pm

RIO DE JANEIRO – Henrik Stenson didn’t play handball growing up, instead focusing his youthful attention on the likes of soccer, golf, badminton and bandy, which the Swede described as “like soccer with skates;” but he certainly appreciates the athletic poetry of the sport.

“My dad played a lot of handball, so that's why I'm very familiar with that game,” he said.

All of which also made him appreciate when the Swedish men’s handball team showed up for Round 2 at the Olympic Golf Course fresh off their loss to Slovenia on Thursday night in group play.

Stenson arrived early in Rio to walk in the Opening Ceremony and watch his beloved Swedish handball team before getting back to the day job of winning a golf tournament.

“I’ve been watching them, it’s only fair they repay the favor,” Stenson smiled.

In retrospect, the Swedish handball players might have been in the gallery for more than just moral support considering Stenson’s play for two days at the Olympics.

The favorite for this week’s gold medal has lived up to that billing in Rio, opening his week with a 66 and enduring the worst of Friday’s weather for a 3-under 68 that left him two strokes off the lead held by Australia's Marcus Fraser.

For a player who had a reputation for being his own worst enemy at times on the golf course, Stenson has emerged over the last few weeks as a bona fide closer.

Flawless and fierce last month at Royal Troon, he answered every challenge Phil Mickelson could muster when he closed with a 63 for a three-stroke margin and his first major victory.

Olympic golf coverage: Articles, photos and videos

But if you’re counting style points, a gold medal this week for Stenson may be even more impressive than what he accomplished at The Open.

On Wednesday in Rio the normally personable Stenson had a rare edge to him, snapping at reporters after a barrage of questions about the new Olympic golf course and the collection of high-profile players who didn’t make the trip to Brazil. “Is anyone going to ask about my game?”

But if Stenson’s temperament seemed sharper than normal he’d come by it honestly considering he essentially went straight from The Open to the PGA Championship, where he tied for seventh, before making the trip to Rio.

On Wednesday he admitted to being worn down by the intensity of the last few weeks and employing an economy of energy to prepare for this week’s event.

Although Stenson has a history of making the most of a hot hand like he did in 2013 when he won two playoff events to claim the FedEx Cup and then the European Tour’s Race to Dubai, this time feels different. This time somehow feels more sustainable, more substantial.

There is a calm to Stenson this week that belies the importance of winning a gold medal that in no way is a reflection of how the 40-year-old feels about golf’s return to the Olympics.

Unlike many of the game’s other top players Stenson never wavered in his support of playing the Olympics, telling anyone who would ask he would value a gold medal just behind a major in importance. Yet he set out this week with a conviction that justified his status as the favorite.

“I saw the remarks that some guys were more nervous walking here. I actually felt kind of opposite,” he said following Round 2. “I don't know if it was because I was pretty clear on my game and what I was going to do. I felt less butterflies walking to the tee box than at some other events.”

That calm was tested early on Friday when a cold rain and heavy wind greeted the early starters. Stenson estimated he played the course’s toughest holes in the worst conditions and after birdies at Nos. 1 and 2, he made a mess of the 18th hole and faced a 108-foot putt for par.

“You're just standing there praying for a two-putt bogey,” said Stenson, who converted the par attempt. “Before I know it, I think it found the bottom of the cup. That's the longest putt I've made in my career.”

Stenson’s closing stretch was even more eventful when he played his last five holes without a par, a run that included two bogeys and three birdies.

However he got there, Stenson’s position near the top of an eclectic leaderboard was an ominous sign. It’s not exactly Michael Phelps at the turn of the 200-meter butterfly, but there is an air of intimidation to the Swede’s play this week that wasn’t there just six weeks ago.

“He's the man to beat, I reckon,” said Justin Rose, who is tied for fourth, two strokes behind Stenson. “He's obviously ice cold and we all know when he gets into a rhythm as we saw at Royal Troon, he's a pretty special player.”

Stenson’s nickname has never fit him perfectly. The Iceman can certainly look the part at times as he makes his way from shot to shot, but he’s certainly proven that he’s not above the occasional meltdown.

Just as it was starting to look like Stenson was poised to force his will on the Rio field, he acknowledged the 600-pound capybara in the room. For Stenson, just as it is for most players in this week’s field, the Olympics have proven to be much more than a curious experiment or exhibition.

“I'm sure that there will be butterflies if you've got a gold medal on the line on Sunday afternoon," he smiled. "I'm sure there might be one little one." 

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 all can grab the top spot in the world ranking.

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

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 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, 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.