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Come and get it: PGA ripe for low scores

By Ryan LavnerAugust 8, 2018, 6:02 pm

ST. LOUIS – Going the distance on a hot, steamy Midwest morning, Dustin Johnson bumped into Sergio Garcia and Tyrrell Hatton as they headed off the 10th tee at Bellerive Country Club.

Rather than wait for them to clear in front of him on the 508-yard par 4, Johnson instead launched a missile over their heads.

The crowd roared with laughter.

Then Rory McIlroy stepped up and fired another warning shot. Jon Rahm, too.

The last to play was Shane Lowry, and this made the group slightly uncomfortable, because Lowry is average length off the tee and Garcia and Hatton were fast approaching their golf balls.

“Hurry up! Hurry up!” McIlroy said, giggling. But sure enough, Lowry, too, had more than enough firepower to send it 300-plus.

Get used to that sight. Soft and swampy Bellerive will be under attack all week in the final edition of the August PGA Championship.

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Beginning next year, the year’s final major will instead be contested second, sandwiched between the Masters and U.S. Open. The coordinated move allows the sport to showcase huge tournaments from March to August, the PGA Tour to end its wraparound season before football monopolizes viewership, the Olympics to have top billing in August 2020, and the PGA to expand its premier event to other parts of the country and appeal to 85 percent of its membership that is just beginning its season.

It’s a dramatic shifting of the golf landscape. In its 100-year history, the PGA has been played in nine different months, but it’s occupied the final spot on the major calendar 57 of the past 58 years.

That’s been its core identity, the reason why for years the PGA’s tagline was “Glory’s Last Shot.” And it was true. The PGA doesn’t have the grandeur of the Masters, the ruggedness of the U.S. Open or the tradition of The Open, but if nothing else it offered a final opportunity to salvage an uneven season, or to cap a great year, or to project ahead to bigger and better things for the following season.

That all changes in 2019, however, when the PGA will have to redefine what makes it distinctive – other than boasting the strongest field of any major (109 of the top 111 in the world are here) and the 20 spots reserved for the club professionals.

It’s telling, perhaps, that when asked about the defining characteristics of this championship, most players pointed to their world-class treatment and the user-friendly setups.

That everything from the lodging to the facilities to the staffing is convenient and accessible.

That it’s a fair test on a straightforward, no-frills layout.

That chief championships officer Kerry Haigh and Co. aren’t concerned with the winning score, whether it’s 5 or 15 under.

“I think you look at it as a really challenging, difficult PGA Tour event with the aura of a major championship and certainly the most competitive field in all of golf,” Jordan Spieth said.

Of course, that “really challenging, difficult” part could get tested this week.

After a scorching-hot summer, club officials had no choice but to keep Bellerive as soft as possible to avoid losing the course too early. Mother Nature’s impact can mostly be found in the greens, which have little root structure and should accept more soft-landing approaches, even from the rough. The actual surfaces putt better than they appear, but the PGA left a notice in the locker room alerting players that green speeds and conditions would be intentionally slower in practice than during competition rounds. An inch and a half of rain Tuesday only added to the belief that this will be quintessential target golf.

“I look at that as a positive,” Haigh said, “because I think we could have one of the most exciting PGA Championships ever played.”

Branden Grace carded the first 62 in major-championship history at last year’s Open Championship on a calm, windless day at par-70 Royal Birkdale, and there’s a growing sense that mark could be under assault this week.

The cushy Zoysia fairways make even tricky shots around the greens more playable. There are few disaster holes to make double bogey or worse. The greens themselves are massive targets, but almost all have smaller quadrants that balls can funnel into and increase the likelihood of hole-outs.

“If you put 98 of the top 100 golfers in the world on a beautifully manicured course with soft greens and little or no wind,” Haigh said, “I certainly hope and expect we’ll see a lot of birdies.”

If all goes well, Wednesday was the one and only time that Haigh planned to meet with the press. He doesn’t particularly enjoy the annual gathering, because his task is to showcase the best players on great layouts, nothing more, and that won’t change whether this tournament is played in August or May.

“I don’t like being up here,” he said. “I don’t really want to talk about it because we are not the story. It’s the players and the golf course.”

And that’s a mission statement that everyone who loves golf can support.

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Podcast: Welcome our guest - Tiger Tracker

By Golf Channel DigitalAugust 17, 2018, 7:47 pm

Host Will Gray calls him “The man, the myth, the legend.”

GCTiger Tracker, aka “TT,” makes his highly anticipated first guest appearance in a Golf Channel podcast, pontificating on everything from Tiger Woods’ run at the PGA Championship at Bellerive to the overall nature of Tiger’s comeback and what breakthroughs may lie ahead.

Tiger Tracker, Golf Channel’s mystery man, continues to rigorously protect his identity as the foremost Twitter tracker of all things Tiger, but he does open up on his intense relationship with his growing legion of followers and his “trigger finger” when it comes to blocking those unworthy of his insight.

“I’m more of a lover than a hater of Tiger Woods, but I’m a tracker,” TT tells Gray. “I call it like I see it.”

Tracker goes deep on what he sees as his role in continuing to document Tiger’s comeback, including a sense of kinship in this journey.

“I had 142,000 followers on the Monday of the Bahamas [late last year], and as we speak now, 296,000, more than double in that short span,” Tracker says. “That shows you what he’s been able to do, what we’ve been able to do together. Let’s be honest about that.”

Listen in below:

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Olesen hopes to cause Ryder Cup chain reaction

By Randall MellAugust 17, 2018, 7:13 pm

With his move up the leaderboard Friday at the Nordea Masters, Thorbjorn Olesen continued his hard charge to make the European Ryder Cup team on points and take some pressure off team captain and fellow Dane Thomas Bjorn.

With a 4-under-par 66, Olesen is in contention in Sweden, five shots off the lead.

With a finish of second or better this week, Olesen can climb among the top four on the European Ryder Cup points list, bumping Tommy Fleetwood with less than three weeks left in qualifying. Olesen is currently sixth on the European points list.

“I'm trying not to think about it at all,” Olesen said after the first round. “That's obviously difficult, but I'm really trying to put my head down and concentrate on my game.”

Olesen, 28, doesn’t want to put Bjorn in an awkward position when it’s time to make the four captain’s picks.

Full-field scores from the Nordea Masters

“Thomas and I are great friends,” Olesen said. “I don't think that makes it better for me. It might make it worse. I would love to get in that team [on points]. That's my goal.”

That’s the way Bjorn prefers it, too.

“I’ve made it very clear that he needs to do something very special to make this team and preferably make it on merit, because I can’t be in a situation where I feel like I’m doing anybody a favor,” Bjorn said before last week’s PGA Championship. “To be honest, I’ve taken a slight step away from him at the moment, just to let him concentrate on his own golf.”

Olesen is on a nice run. He won the Italian Open and tied for second at the BMW International Open in June, tied for sixth at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open in July and tied for third at the WGC Bridgestone two weeks ago.

“I would love to be in Paris, to play for Europe,” Olesen said. “I can only go out every day and try to play good golf and show that I'm good enough for the team. That's all I can do.

“I haven't talked to Thomas about the Ryder Cup the last four or five months.”

If Olesen moves among the top four on the European points list this weekend, it has a chain reaction, with Fleetwood then moving over to take one of four qualifying spots on the European world points list. That would bump Ian Poulter outside the top four of that list. The Nordea Masters is among the final three European Tour events that players can qualify on points.


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Getting cheeky: 'Beef' drops trou, saves par

By Golf Channel DigitalAugust 17, 2018, 3:23 pm

Andrew "Beef" Johnston provided the Nordea Masters crowd a little beefcake - that was just too easy - on Friday when he dropped trou during the second round.

He had pulled his drive on the short (253 yards) par-4 12th hole into a hazard, but the ball was playable. He played a mud-spattered explosion out of the muck, then opted to abandon his trousers for a pair of rain pants, much to the delight of the fans. The story has a happy ending, too. After hitting his second shot over the green, he chipped up and saved par.

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Cut Line: An appreciation of Woods, Lyle

By Rex HoggardAugust 17, 2018, 2:13 pm

In a regular-season finale edition, we celebrate how far Tiger Woods has come this season, mourn the loss of one of the game’s truly special people and crunch the numbers on Sergio Garcia’s 11th-hour sprint to the playoffs.

Made Cut

Perspective. Tiger Woods’ runner-up finish at the PGA Championship was another reason to appreciate the 14-time major winner’s comeback, and to marvel at how far he’s come in a relatively short period of time.

“I didn't know what my schedule would be. I didn't know how many tournaments I would play this year or if I would even play. So each tournament brought about its own challenges,” Woods reminded us following his closing 64 at Bellerive.

Although Woods has repeatedly talked about those dark and painful days before fusion surgery on his lower back, a recent interview with Nick Faldo on the Dan Patrick Show revealed just how bad things were.

 “I know [Woods] whispered to another Masters champion, two Masters dinners ago [2017], 'I'm done. I won't play golf again,’” Faldo said. “He said, 'I'm done. I'm done, my back is done.' He was in agony. He was in pain. His leg, the pain down his legs, there was nothing enjoyable. He couldn't move. If you watched footage of him, he couldn't even get in and out of the golf cart at the [2016] Ryder Cup when he was a vice captain.”

Woods’ improved play in recent months has slowly glossed over just how bad things were, not to mention how far he’s come.

RIP Jarrod Lyle. The PGA Tour community continues to mourn the loss of Lyle, who died last week at home in Australia following his third bout with acute myeloid leukemia.

A GoFundMe page created by Golf Channel’s Tripp Isenhour quickly met its goal of raising $200,000 for Lyle’s family, and tournament officials at this week’s Wyndham Championship placed Lyle’s staff bag, along with his signature bright-yellow bucket hat, on the first tee.

Officials at Sedgefield Country Club also created a sand castle memorial for Lyle, who played the Wyndham Championship four times in his career.

“It was hard not to think of Jarrod, certainly,” Adam Scott said on Sunday at the PGA. “The people who knew him quite well that were playing this week, golf was a little distraction, but probably now, as we get some time off and get to go home and be with our family, that we will be able to celebrate him a little bit more.”

Made Cut-Did Not Finish (MDF)

Bon voyage Bellerive. Major championship golf returned to St. Louis for the first time in two decades last week, and the Midwestern masses celebrated like it had been more than 20 years.

Record crowds swarmed the layout all week and Sunday’s final round was the most raucous day in golf (non-Ryder Cup division) since the 2008 U.S. Open.

Even the golf course, which featured slower-than-normal greens and wet conditions following storms on Tuesday and Friday, received high praise from the rank and file, all of which makes the course’s Grand Slam future so awkward.

The PGA Championship is booked up pretty much through 2029, with one open date, either 2025 or ’26, still available; while the Ryder Cup is scheduled through the 2024 matches at Bethpage, which means the earliest it could be played at Bellerive is 2028.

As much as players and fans celebrated golf’s return to St. Louis, Bellerive’s future place on the Grand Slam dance card has a distinct “don’t call us, we’ll call you” feel to it.

Tweet of the week: @JustinThomas34 (Justin Thomas) “Fans and people in St Louis . . . y’all were unbelievable! Never heard roars like that in my life. That is what I’ve thought and dreamt major championship Sundays were like since I was a kid.”

Bubble this and that. It’s a rite of fall in professional golf, players scrambling at the year’s final regular-season event to qualify for the playoffs or improve their postseason fortunes.

Sergio Garcia is the week’s most high-profile “bubble” player in the Wyndham Championship field, with the Spaniard mired at 131st on the point list. But this is likely less about the postseason – Garcia has skipped the first playoff start the last three years – than it is his need to secure his 15th start of the season, which is required to maintain membership.

A similar scenario occurred a few seasons ago with Henrik Stenson, and as the Tour transitions to a new, condensed schedule next year it’s probably going to happen more often.

With fewer playoff events and a condensed summer schedule, players, particularly those who also play the European Tour, will be faced with some tough choices starting in 2019.

Missed Cut

Captain obvious. We can appreciate Jim Furyk’s desire to cling to protocol. He has three weeks to decide who will be his first three captain’s picks for the Ryder Cup, but perhaps he should just come clean.

Following Woods’ runner-up finish at the PGA, which moved him from 20th to 11th on the U.S. point list, Furyk played a particularly aloof card when asked about Tiger’s chances of being a pick.

“He's playing very well. I think there's a lot of folks out there who probably think he can help us,” Furyk said. “I realize Tiger is a story. I realize he's playing very well, and I'm excited to see that.”

While Furyk’s reluctance is understandable, anyone with a pulse and an internet connection knows Woods will be a pick. If the captain wants to focus on other things, like the eight automatic qualifiers, simply stop the formalities and make Tiger an early selection.