Ten takeaways from a wild major season

By Ryan LavnerAugust 2, 2016, 12:30 pm

SPRINGFIELD, N.J. – The major season began with an awkward exchange, as a heartbroken Jordan Spieth slipped the green jacket onto the shoulders of Danny Willett.

It ended with a heartwarming display of sportsmanship, with Jason Day waiting behind the 18th green to personally congratulate Jimmy Walker on outlasting him en route to his first major title.

Over the past 115 days, we’ve seen just about everything: long-awaited breakthroughs, sublime final-round play and questionable decision-making.

And so before we look ahead to the Olympics, FedEx Cup Playoffs and Ryder Cup, here are 10 takeaways from an unforgettable major season:

Golf is too deep for a Big Whatever. So much for Spieth, Day and Rory McIlroy continuing to mop up major titles. Walker’s win at the PGA was the fifth in a row by a first-timer, and there are plenty of others waiting in the pipeline, from Sergio Garcia to Brooks Koepka to Branden Grace. Day might be the best player on the planet, but at the PGA he was topped by a guy who didn’t have a top-10 since March. Everybody is invited to the parity party.

Photos: Top men's major moments in 2016

DJ realized his awesome potential. Sure, there was a sense of inevitability to Johnson’s victory at Oakmont, but with each close call – and each are-you-kidding-me? moment – it became harder to envision that he would bust through the major barrier. And yet, after years of succumbing to the big moment, he shook off one of the most bizarre incidents in major-championship history and powered his way to victory. How’d he elevate his brawny game to the next level? By shoring up his biggest weakness. In the past year, he’s improved from 53rd to sixth in proximity to the hole from 125 yards and in. For a power player who has a wedge or short iron into more than half his holes each round, that minor improvement proved to be the difference-maker.

This year, at least, there was more action on the 12th hole than the 18th. Spieth’s bid for back-to-back Masters titles came to an end on the most dangerous par 3 in the world, at Augusta National. His first tee shot there at least was understandable – yes, it was a poorly struck iron at an inopportune time, but he’s far from the first player to rinse a shot in Rae’s Creek. What turned Spieth’s big blunder into a monumental mistake was then chunking a three-quarter wedge from the drop zone, leading to a shocking quadruple bogey and a deficit he couldn’t overcome. It was devastating to watch, and now Spieth (and every golf fan) will flash back to that moment every time he walks to the tee. The 12th hole was no less memorable at Oakmont – that’s where USGA officials confronted Johnson and informed him that he might receive a one-stroke penalty after the round, sending the Open into chaos. Which reminds us …

It was not a banner major season for either the USGA or the PGA of America. The blue blazers royally botched the DJ ruling, first refusing to acknowledge that the officials had made an error (even trotting out some legal mumbo jumbo about the preponderance of evidence) before finally conceding it had made a “big bogey.” Throw in USGA president Diana Murphy’s bizarre inability to conduct a trophy presentation (pictured), and the USGA quickly became a punch line – and a punching bag. The PGA’s Kerry Haigh is one of the most well-respected setup men in the game, but even he came under fire for not bumping up tee times during Saturday’s third round. That miscalculation forced players to slog through the longest final day in 64 years. At least it wasn’t all bad news for the PGA: Somehow, the final round was completed before nightfall Sunday, and the unprecedented decision to play preferred lies turned out to be a shrewd move when the fairways became glorified mud pits. By the end of the major season, the controversies and the contentiousness were exhausting. Can’t they just form a three-person committee to make common-sense decisions?

Spieth is adjusting to life in his new world. At about this time last year, he had just polished off one of the greatest major seasons ever, when he finished four shots shy of the single-season Grand Slam. Oh, what a fascinating time since. From melting down at the Masters to bristling at some of the negative questions about his game, Spieth is slowly but surely learning about the expectations and pressure of being a global superstar. Even though he likely was one hole away from adding another major title, all anyone seems to remember now is that he has finished outside the top 10 in each of the past three majors, prompting a slew of “What’s Wrong with Jordan?” thinkpieces. The answer, of course, is nothing, because he’s 23 and history suggests he probably won’t ever top last year’s dream run. At times, the outside criticism has seemed unfair, especially for a two-time Tour winner this season. But Spieth likely realizes now that he won’t be judged like everybody else. Fair or not, it’s the price of superstardom.

Rory has fallen behind. The belief here – and surely many other places – was that in 2016 McIlroy would reassume his spot atop golf’s pecking order. He’d be healthy … hungry … motivated. Instead, he fell flat in a Saturday showdown with Spieth at the Masters, missed the cut at the U.S. Open, never factored at Troon and then self-immolated on the greens at Baltusrol. McIlroy’s long game might be peerless, but until he figures out a solution to his putting woes, the gap between him and the No. 1 ranking will only grow wider.

Henrik Stenson’s Open performance will go down as one of the best all time. After every major there’s a rush to declare that what we just witnessed was one of the best duels, rounds or shots in the game’s long history. Oftentimes, we’re simply victims of the moment. Not so, however, when it came to putting the thrilling head-to-head battle between Stenson and Phil Mickelson in the proper perspective. Blowing away the field, they needed just 128 shots, combined, in the final round at Troon, with Stenson becoming only the second player to win after closing with 63. The famed Duel in the Sun had better stars, with legends Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus trading blows at Turnberry. The final round at Troon had better golf.

Phil has plenty left in the tank. Though he remains as unpredictable as ever, Mickelson proved at Troon (and at other stops earlier this year) that he isn’t slowing down, even as an arthritic 46-year-old. We’ve taken for granted that Mickelson has been so good for so long – he won on Tour as a 20-year-old amateur! – but the offseason work with new coach Andrew Getson has helped revitalize his stagnant game. Even if he never captures that elusive Open, it’s easy to see him contending at the majors as he approaches the Big 5-0 and beyond.

The condensed summer schedule helped and hurt in equal measure. Though DJ and Stenson could ride their good form into high finishes at multiple majors, the quick turnaround time proved costly for stars like Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson and Adam Scott, whose game was just a touch off this summer. Quite simply, there wasn’t ample time to correct any swing flaw. Fowler, in particular, took a massive step backward in 2016. Two years after finishing in the top 5 in all four majors, and a year after winning three times worldwide, he bombed out with two missed cuts and two other middling finishes outside the top 30. It’ll be a long wait until April.

The PGA should consider a new date for the 2020 PGA. It’s clear that the Olympics undermined the year’s fourth major, creating a buzz-less atmosphere at Baltusrol and a wave of burnt-out players. In a seven-week span, the game’s elite teed it up in three majors and a World Golf Championship event. By the time the PGA arrived in late July, several players were dragging and ready for an extended break. Let’s face it: It’s too much demanding, high-pressure golf, and the product suffered. Assuming men’s golf remains in the Olympic rotation in 2020, the PGA would be wise to consider all options – March? May? October? – to help differentiate the event from just another big tournament in a year full of them.

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Johnson begins Open week as 12/1 betting favorite

By Will GrayJuly 16, 2018, 5:15 pm

Dustin Johnson heads into The Open as the top-ranked player in the world, and he's also an understandable betting favorite as he looks to win a second career major.

Johnson has not played since the U.S. Open, where he led by four shots at the halfway point and eventually finished third. He has three top-10 finishes in nine Open appearances, notably a T-2 finish at Royal St. George's in 2011.

Johnson opened as a 12/1 favorite when the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook first published odds for Carnoustie after the U.S. Open, and he remains at that number with the first round just three days away.

Here's a look at the latest odds on some of the other top contenders, according to the Westgate:

12/1: Dustin Johnson

16/1: Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Justin Rose

20/1: Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Tommy Fleetwood, Brooks Koepka, Jon Rahm

25/1: Jason Day, Henrik Stenson, Tiger Woods

30/1: Sergio Garcia, Francesco Molinari, Paul Casey, Alex Noren, Patrick Reed

40/1: Hideki Matsuyama, Marc Leishman, Branden Grace, Tyrrell Hatton

50/1: Phil Mickelson, Ian Poulter, Matthew Fitzpatrick

60/1: Russell Knox, Louis Oosthuizen, Matt Kuchar, Bryson DeChambeau, Zach Johnson, Tony Finau, Bubba Watson

80/1: Lee Westwood, Adam Scott, Patrick Cantlay, Rafael Cabrera-Bello, Thomas Pieters, Xander Schauffele

100/1: Shane Lowry, Webb Simpson, Brandt Snedeker, Ryan Fox, Thorbjorn Olesen

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Woods needs top-10 at Open to qualify for WGC

By Will GrayJuly 16, 2018, 4:34 pm

If Tiger Woods is going to qualify for the final WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club, he'll need to do something he hasn't done in five years this week at The Open.

Woods has won eight times at Firestone, including his most recent PGA Tour victory in 2013, and has openly stated that he would like to qualify for the no-cut event in Akron before it shifts to Memphis next year. But in order to do so, Woods will need to move into the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking after this week's event at Carnoustie.

Woods is currently ranked No. 71 in the world, down two spots from last week, and based on projections it means that he'll need to finish no worse than a tie for eighth to have a chance of cracking the top 50. Woods' last top-10 finish at a major came at the 2013 Open at Muirfield, where he tied for sixth.

Updated Official World Golf Ranking

There are actually two OWGR cutoffs for the Bridgestone, July 23 and July 30. That means that Woods could theoretically still add a start at next week's RBC Canadian Open to chase a spot in the top 50, but he has said on multiple occasions that this week will be his last start of the month. The WGC-Bridgestone Invitational will be played Aug. 2-5.

There wasn't much movement in the world rankings last week, with the top 10 staying the same heading into the season's third major. Dustin Johnson remains world No. 1, followed by Justin Thomas, Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm. Defending Open champ Jordan Spieth is ranked sixth, with Rickie Fowler, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Tommy Fleetwood rounding out the top 10.

Despite taking the week off, Sweden's Alex Noren moved up three spots from No. 14 to No. 11, passing Patrick Reed, Bubba Watson and Paul Casey.

John Deere Classic champ Michael Kim went from No. 473 to No. 215 in the latest rankings, while South African Brandon Stone jumped from 371st to 110th with his win at the Scottish Open.

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Spieth takes familiar break ahead of Open defense

By Rex HoggardJuly 16, 2018, 3:50 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – As his title chances seemed to be slipping away during the final round of last year’s Open Championship, Jordan Spieth’s caddie took a moment to remind him who he was.

Following a bogey at No. 13, Michael Greller referenced a recent vacation he’d taken to Mexico where he’d spent time with Michael Phelps and Michael Jordan and why he deserved to be among that group of singular athletes.

Spieth, who won last year’s Open, decided to continue the tradition, spending time in Cabo again before this week’s championship.

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“I kind of went through the same schedule,” Spieth said on Monday at Carnoustie. “It was nice to have a little vacation.”

Spieth hasn’t played since the Travelers Championship; instead he attended the Special Olympics USA Games earlier this month in Seattle with his sister. It was Spieth’s first time back to the Pacific Northwest since he won the 2015 U.S. Open.

“I went out to Chambers Bay with [Greller],” Spieth said. “We kind of walked down the 18th hole. It was cool reliving those memories.”

But most of all Spieth said he needed a break after a particularly tough season.

“I had the itch to get back to it after a couple weeks of not really working,” he said. “It was nice to kind of have that itch to get back.”

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Harrington: Fiery Carnoustie evokes Hoylake in '06

By Ryan LavnerJuly 16, 2018, 3:45 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – One course came to mind when Padraig Harrington arrived on property and saw a firm, fast and yellow Carnoustie.

Hoylake in 2006.

That's when Tiger Woods avoided every bunker, bludgeoned the links with mid-irons and captured the last of his three Open titles.

So Harrington was asked: Given the similarity in firmness between Carnoustie and Hoylake, can Tiger stir the ghosts this week?

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“I really don’t know,” Harrington said Monday. “He’s good enough to win this championship, no doubt about it. I don’t think he could play golf like the way he did in 2006. Nobody else could have tried to play the golf course the way he did, and nobody else could have played the way he did. I suspect he couldn’t play that way now, either. But I don’t know if that’s the strategy this week, to lay up that far back.”

With three days until the start of this championship, that’s the biggest question mark for Harrington, the 2007 winner here. He doesn’t know what his strategy will be – but his game plan will need to be “fluid.” Do you attack the course with driver and try to fly the fairway bunkers? Or do you attempt to lay back with an iron, even though it’s difficult to control the amount of run-out on the baked-out fairways and bring the bunkers into play?

“The fairways at Hoylake are quite flat, even though they were very fast,” Harrington said. “There’s a lot of undulations in the fairways here, so if you are trying to lay up, you can get hit the back of a slope and kick forward an extra 20 or 30 yards more than you think. So it’s not as easy to eliminate all the risk by laying up.”