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Weird, wild stuff through three days of WGC round robin

By Rex HoggardMarch 23, 2018, 11:45 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Austin is weird.

Actually, the tag line the city clings to is “Keep Austin Weird,” but the power of positive thought seems to be working for the quirky capital city, where community bicycles outnumber parking spots. It also makes Austin the perfect stage for the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, the PGA Tour’s weirdest event.

It all begins with the format, and match play is inherently weird, at least for a golf public conditioned on the relative certainty of stroke play.

Example No. 1,856 of this could be found on Kiradech Aphibarnrat’s scorecard.

The Asian “John Daly” easily advanced to the weekend knockout stage despite playing 49 holes in 5 under par, a nice middle-of-the-pack showing most weeks on Tour.

This is no knock on Aphibarnrat, he just made the most of a few favorable matches, and proved how a capricious format can make a normally straightforward game seem down right wacky.

“I think the same reasons I didn't make it [to the weekend] the first eight times is why I made it the last couple because it's crazy and you just don't ever know,” said Charles Howell III, who was 0-for-8 in trips to the weekend before the circuit transitioned to round-robin play.

Golf is not always the most predictable sport. Wind and inclement weather often provide a level of uncertainty and even the most perfectly executed shot can be pushed off line by all manner of outside influences. But match play, and in particular this Match Play, can be wildly fickle.

“They call it a tournament, but it’s luck,” said Bubba Watson, who advanced to the knockout rounds for the second consecutive year. “It's very difficult. It's one of those things where you have to just accept it. Last year I played Ross Fisher, and he played unbelievable golf. He had like seven birdies. On the back nine made four in a row. I walked home. I was under par. It wasn't like I played bad, but I went home.”

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That kind of randomness can get to a player’s head and brings out the odd in even the game’s most grounded players.

“I'm a little disappointed in my attitude. I'm walking with my head down, and you know what happens when you walk with your head down, animals, they get eaten,” said Phil Mickelson, who was devoured by the curious math of pool play.

In Lefty’s defense, after starting his week with a loss to Howell, Mickelson won his next two matches and is now headed home. Only at the Match Play can you bat over .600 and still get pulled from the line-up.

But it’s not just the format that makes for strange days, it’s the Tour’s answer to match play that makes things really weird.

Since converting to round-robin play in 2015, the push back has been that the first three days are as confusing as they are uninspired.

Consider the fate of pod No. 10. Paul Casey, who was 2-0-0 to start the week, needed to lose his match to Matthew Fitzpatrick, who was 0-2-0 and had no way to advance, and either Kyle Stanley and Russell Henley needed to win the other match, not halve. Casey lost, Stanley won (with a birdie at the 18th hole, no less) and the American birdied the first extra hole to advance.

Got all that?

Although the circuit came to pool play as an honest attempt to spare marquee players an early exit, it has essentially created three watered down days and too many explanations.

I know, weird.

Even the ping-pong balls that dictated this week’s 16 pods proved to be weird, with Jordan Spieth questioning the “randomness” of a blind draw that put he and his Ryder and Presidents Cup stablemate Patrick Reed in the same group. At least that prime-time showdown provided a measure of predictability.

Spieth appeared outmatched early, opening his day with a tee shot out of bounds and quickly falling 2 down; but the duo were all square at the turn before it got odd, again.

With a chance to even the match, Spieth three-putted from 40 feet at the par-5 12th hole. At the 15th hole, Spieth three-jacked from 46 feet to fall 3 down with three to play, all of which is newsworthy because the “Golden Child” had just a dozen three-putts this entire season on Tour. He had three on Friday.

“It was just one of those days that with how the conditions were, it wasn't fun. It was hard, it was a grinder's day out there,” said Reed, who will face Alex Noren in Saturday’s Sweet 16. “You weren't going to see a ton of birdies.”

What we will see on Saturday is something approaching normalcy as the event transitions to the more familiar win-or-go-home format.Three days of confusing pool play have proven how weird things can get, now comes the wild part.

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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.

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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.

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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.  

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Height of irony: Phil putts in front of 'rules' sign

By Grill Room TeamJuly 18, 2018, 1:36 pm

A picture is worth 1,000 words and potentially two strokes for playing a moving ball under Rule 14-5 but not Rule 1-2.

Phil Mickelson has been having some fun during his Open prep at Carnoustie hitting flop shots over human beings, but the irony of this photo below is too obvious to go over anyone's head.

Mickelson also tried tapping down fescue two weeks ago at The Greenbrier, incurring another two-shot penalty.

And so we're left to wonder about what Phil asked himself back at Shinnecock Hills: "The real question is, ‘What am I going to do next?’”