Time for Olympic golf to shine

By Rex HoggardAugust 10, 2016, 7:05 pm

RIO DE JANEIRO – They built it and some have come. Whether Gil Hanse’s handiwork becomes a field of dreams is now up to the clarity of competition.

After seven long years of hype and handwringing, controversy and curiosity, the time for speculation ends early Thursday when Brazil’s Adilson da Silva returns golf to the Olympics after more than a century hiatus with a single tee shot.

On the eve of the men’s competition in Rio all those concerns – from the Zika virus to construction delays – have largely slipped away under the glow of the Olympic flame.

On Tuesday, the team from the United States fielded what will likely be the last of the questions about the players who aren’t at the Games. From here the narrative shifts to those who did make the trip.

“Ten years down the line you’re going to look at who won the gold medal, not who wasn’t here,” said Henrik Stenson, the highest ranked player in this week’s field.

Although the relative success or failure of this year’s Games will always be tied to those who decided to pass on the Olympic opportunity – a list that includes four out of the top five in the world ranking – the ultimate litmus test now depends on the next 72 holes.

Asked what elements needed to fall into place this week to make it all a success, Sergio Garcia waded through all of the distractions that have become the calling card for this competition.

“If it’s a great show, playing good golf and hopefully it comes down to the last few holes where things are tight where someone has a nice finish to win it,” Garcia said.

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The essence of genuine Olympic drama rides the line between dominance and unparalleled drama; with Michael Phelps winning his 20th gold medal in the 200-meter butterfly being the pinnacle of the former; and Brazilian Rafaela Silva’s gold-medal performance in judo a testament to the latter.

The comparison in golf terms would be a Stenson victory, with the Swede pegged as this week’s favorite following his victory at last month’s Open; and a medal performance by the likes of da Silva, the 288th ranked player in the world who left Brazil when he was 16 to pressure his dream of being a professional golfer.

A victory by Stenson or the likes of Bubba Watson or Rickie Fowler would satisfy the need for competitive continuity and the perceived notion that the game’s best need to deliver on the biggest stage; while a silver or bronze medal for a player like da Silva from a nation where the game is struggling to establish a foothold would add substance to the notion that golf in the Olympics is the most promising grow-the-game initiative since metal replaced wood as the desired material for golf clubs.

From the outset when golf made its pitch to the International Olympic Committee the motivation was to use the Games as a way to extend golf’s reach into non-traditional areas, like Brazil where a country of over 200 million counts just 10,000 golfers with registered handicaps.

Da Silva, who now lives in South Africa, is a familiar tale of perseverance having grown up in a small town south of Rio, beginning his career as a caddie at a nine-hole course because he needed a job not a hobby.

The 44-year-old journeyman sees the Games as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to introduce golf to thousands of potential players.

“This is exactly what we need, things like this. Bring awareness to people and create a bit more interest,” da Silva said. “They will see the game and I think it will create so much curiosity. Especially for the kids.”

The competitive success of the event, however it’s defined, will be married directly to the long-term ability of the Games as a catalyst for growth. In many ways a compelling finish to this week’s competition will be the conversation starter, not the conclusion to a seven-year debate.

The Olympic golf effort will leave behind a golf course that is by most accounts a testament to Hanse’s design brilliance, if not the dogged efforts of those who carved a layout out of a caiman-infested swamp. But the real test will be in the coming years.

“Success will be measured on a number of levels,” said Peter Dawson, the president of the International Golf Federation. “First that we have a compelling and exciting event, that the spectators, many of whom have never been exposed to golf, learn a little about golf, and we’ll never know if someone who watches will be inspired to play golf, but statistically some of that must happen.”

Dawson & Co. built a golf course, now it’s time to see if they’ve built a legacy.

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Tiger Tracker: 147th Open Championship

By Tiger TrackerJuly 20, 2018, 2:30 pm

Tiger Woods shot his second consecutive 70 on Friday at Carnoustie and enters weekend play at even par for the championship, still in contention for major No. 15.

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Scott and Sunesson a one-week partnership

By Rex HoggardJuly 20, 2018, 2:13 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Adam Scott has been in between caddies for the last month and went with a bold stand-in for this week’s Open Championship, coaxing veteran looper Fanny Sunesson out of retirement to work for him at Carnoustie.

Sunesson caddied for Nick Faldo in his prime, as the duo won four major titles together. She also worked for Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia before a back injury forced her to retire.

But for this week’s championship, Scott convinced the Swede to return to the caddie corps. The results have been impressive, with the Australian following an opening 71 with a second-round 70 for a tie for 16th place.

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“It's been going great. Fanny is, obviously, a fantastic caddie, and to be able to have that experience out there with me is certainly comforting,” Scott said. “We've gotten along really well. She's picked up on my game quickly, and I think we think about things in a very similar way.”

Scott was also asked about a potential long-term partnership between the duo, but he didn’t sound hopeful.

“It's just for this week,” he said. “It would be up to her, but I don't think she's making plans of a comeback. I was being a bit opportunistic in contacting her and coaxing her out of retirement, I guess. But I think she's having a good week. We'll just take it one week at the moment.”

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After tense Augusta Sunday, Rory ready to be aggressive

By Ryan LavnerJuly 20, 2018, 1:51 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Rory McIlroy temporarily lost his superpowers during the Masters.  

In one of the most surprising rounds of the year, he played tentatively and carefully during the final day. Squaring off against the major-less Patrick Reed, on the brink of history, with the backing of nearly the entire crowd, it was McIlroy who shrank in the moment, who looked like the one searching for validation. He shot a joyless 74 and wound up six shots behind Reed.

No, the final round was nowhere near as dispiriting as the finale in 2011, but McIlroy still sulked the following week. He binge-watched TV shows. Devoured a few books. Guzzled a couple of bottles of wine. His pity party lasted a few days, until his wife, Erica, finally dragged him out of the house for a walk.

Some deeper introspection was required, and McIlroy revealed a healthier self-analysis Friday at Carnoustie. He diagnosed what went wrong at Augusta, and then again two months later at the U.S. Open, where he blew himself out of the tournament with an opening 80.

“I was worrying too much about the result, not focusing on the process,” he said. “Sunday at Augusta was a big learning curve for me because, even if I hadn’t won that tournament, but I went down swinging and aggressive and committing to every shot, I would have walked away a lot happier.”

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

And so McIlroy has a new mantra this week at The Open.

Let it go.

Don’t hold back. Don’t worry about the repercussions. Don’t play scared.

“I’m committed to making sure, even if I don’t play my best golf and don’t shoot the scores I want, I’m going to go down swinging, and I’m going to go down giving my best,” he said. “The result is the byproduct of all the little things you do to lead up to that. Sometimes I’ve forgotten that, and I just need to get back in that mindset.”

It’s worked through two rounds, even after the cool, damp conditions led McIlroy to abandon his ultra-aggressive strategy. He offset a few mistakes with four birdies, shooting a second consecutive 69 to sit just a couple of shots off the lead.

During a sun-splashed first round, McIlroy gleefully banged driver on almost every hole, flying or skirting the bunkers that dot these baked-out, undulating fairways. He wasn’t particularly accurate, but he also didn’t need to be, as the thin, wispy rough enabled every player to at least advance their approach shots near the green.

Friday’s weather presented a different challenge. A steady morning rain took some of the fire out of parched fairways, but the cooler temperatures also reduced much of the bombers’ hang time. Suddenly, all of the bunkers were in play, and McIlroy needed to adjust his driver-heavy approach (he hit only six) on the fly.

“It just wasn’t worth it,” he said.

McIlroy hit a few “skanky” shots, in his words, but even his bigger misses – on the sixth and 17th holes – were on the proper side, allowing him to scramble for par and keep the round going.

It’s the fifth time in his career that he’s opened a major with back-to-back rounds in the 60s. He’s gone on to win three of the previous four – the lone exception that disastrous final round (80) at Augusta in 2011.

“I don’t want to say easy,” he said, “but it’s felt comfortable.”

The weekend gets uncomfortable for everyone, apparently even four-time major winners who, when in form, ooze confidence and swagger.

Once again McIlroy has that look at a major.

The only thing left to do?

Let it go.

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Z. Johnson may have to pay for the jet home

By Rex HoggardJuly 20, 2018, 1:23 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Zach Johnson will have some bragging rights when he gets back to the ultimate golf frat house on Friday after a second-round 67 moved him into the lead at The Open.

Johnson is rooming with Jordan Spieth, Jason Dufner, Kevin Kisner, Jimmy Walker, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler this week at Carnoustie. It’s a tradition that began two years ago at Royal Troon.

Kisner joked on Thursday after he took the first-round lead that the perks for the house/tournament front-runner were limited: “I probably get to eat first,” he said.

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

There is, however, one running wager.

“Two years ago we, I don't know if you call it bet, but agreement that, if you win, you get the jet and you buy it, so we go home,” said Johnson, who added that because of varying travel arrangements, the wager might not be needed this year. “I didn't pay last year. Somebody else did.”

Spieth won last year’s championship at Royal Birkdale.

Despite the expense, Johnson said he didn’t know how much it costs to charter a private flight back to the United States, but it’s a good problem to have.

“I’d be happy to fork it over,” he smiled.