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Halfway home, more playoff thrills to come?

By Ryan LavnerSeptember 12, 2017, 11:40 am

Criticized in the past for failing to identify the best player, the FedExCup might not have that problem this year.

Check out the top 5 in the points standings and the Official World Golf Ranking. Their positions are different, but the players – Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm – are the same.

The cream is rising to the top this postseason.

Part of it is fortuitous timing, the best playing their best at the right time, but other factors are involved, too. Those near the top of the standings have a sense of freedom, focused more on contending than a cutoff for the top 30, 70 or 100. Big-game experience also helps – these guys know how to handle pressure and win important titles.

And then there’s this: “We treat these three events and Atlanta as a major,” Thomas said. “We are trying to be peaking this time.”

So much can change over the next two weeks, of course, but the start to these playoffs couldn’t have gone much better for the Tour.


BMW Championship: Articles, video and photos

Current FedExCup Playoff points standings


For years, Camp Ponte Vedra pushed the narrative that the FedExCup crowned a season-long champion. That was a tough sell, however, when wild points’ fluctuations allowed Bill Haas (2011), Brandt Snedeker (2012) and Billy Horschel (2014) to seemingly come out of nowhere and bag the $10 million prize, leaving those who had better seasons to scratch their heads. Even last year, there was a dreaded scenario in which Paul Casey, who entered the Tour Championship at No. 5 in the standings, could walk away with the cup without a win that season. 

Maybe that happens this year – we’re looking at you, once again, Mr. Casey – but it doesn’t seem likely. The last 10 playoff events have been won by some of the game’s biggest stars: Thomas, Johnson (twice), Rory McIlroy (twice), Patrick Reed, Spieth, Jason Day (twice) and Rickie Fowler.

To kick off this year’s postseason, Johnson overcame a five-shot deficit at the Northern Trust, forcing a playoff with Spieth and then overpowering him on the first extra hole. But even more important for the Tour: Fans were paying attention. No, the cup likely won’t ever generate the same level of interest as the majors, but the final round on Long Island had the fourth-best TV rating for a non-major this year, and the best at that event since 2013 (when needle-mover Tiger Woods contended).

On Labor Day, Thomas overtook Spieth on the back nine – signaling, perhaps, the beginning of a compelling rivalry – to win the second playoff event and solidify his case as PGA Tour Player of the Year.

The off-week may have halted some of the postseason momentum, but the current top 5 in points – which, as a reminder, aligns with the players in the top 5 in the world ranking – should have no shortage of motivation these next two weeks.

Thomas has been this season’s breakout star, powering his way to five wins, including the PGA, and finally emerging from the considerable shadow of Spieth, his longtime friend and healthy rival.

It seems the only two players who could steal Thomas’ Player of the Year votes are Spieth and Johnson.

Spieth has three wins this season (including the year’s most memorable major) and three runners-up, owns the best scoring average (68.8) and has only one less top-10 than Thomas while playing two fewer events. Boston was a missed opportunity, however, and now Spieth likely needs to win out to take the Jack Nicklaus Trophy.

Fair or not, 2017 will always be remembered as a bittersweet year for Johnson, who has won four times (second-most on Tour) but can’t help but wonder what could have been if he didn’t injure his lower back on the eve of the Masters. Lest we forget: This spring, DJ evoked memories of Woods the way he steamrolled his competition.

Assessing Johnson’s Player of the Year chances is more difficult, because the award is voted on by his peers, who, if history is any indication, significantly weight major victories. His four victories include two World Golf Championships, a playoff event and the tournament at Riviera, which boasts one of the strongest non-major fields of the year. If he takes the final two events – getting to six wins overall, and bookending his campaign with the best golf we’ve seen all year – then he deserves serious Player of the Year consideration, too.  

As for the rest of the top 5? Matsuyama has had a quiet playoffs so far, dropping a few spots in the standings after getting his heart broken at the PGA, while Rahm, who just 15 months ago had no status on any tour, ascended to No. 5 in the world (and the FedExCup) on the strength of an early-season victory and eight other top-10s, including back-to-back top-4s to start the playoffs.

Considering their form this year, any of those five players would be a satisfying season-long winner.

Just as the PGA Tour designed it.

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Stunner: Inbee Park steps aside for Int. Crown

By Randall MellJuly 17, 2018, 4:00 pm

There was a big surprise this week when the LPGA announced the finalized lineups for the UL International Crown.

Rolex world No. 1 Inbee Park won’t be teeing it up for the host South Koreans Oct. 4-7 in Incheon.

She has withdrawn, saying she wanted another Korean to be able to experience the thrill of representing her country.

It’s a stunner given the importance the LPGA has placed on taking the UL International Crown to South Korea and its golf-crazy allegiance to the women’s game in the Crown’s first staging outside the United States.

Two-time major champion In Gee Chun will replace Park.

"It was my pleasure and honor to participate in the first UL International Crown in 2014 and at the 2016 Olympics, and I cannot describe in one word how amazing the atmosphere was to compete as a representative of my country,” Park said. “There are so many gifted and talented players in Korea, and I thought it would be great if one of the other players was given the chance to experience the 2018 UL International Crown.”

Chun, another immensely popular player in South Korea, was the third alternate, so to speak, with the world rankings used to field teams. Hye Jin Choi and Jin Young Ko were higher ranked than Chun but passed because of commitments made to competing in a Korean LPGA major that week. The other South Koreans who previously qualified are So Yeon Ryu, Sung Hyun Park and I.K. Kim.

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Na: I can admit, 'I went through the yips'

By Rex HoggardJuly 17, 2018, 3:35 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Following his victory two weeks ago at A Military Tribute at the Greenbrier, Kevin Na said his second triumph on the PGA Tour was the most rewarding of his career.

Although he declined to go into details as to why the victory was so gratifying at The Greenbrier, as he completed his practice round on Tuesday at the Open Championship, Na shed some light on how difficult the last few years have been.

“I went through the yips. The whole world saw that. I told people, 'I can’t take the club back,'” Na said on Tuesday at Carnoustie. “People talked about it, 'He’s a slow player. Look at his routine.' I was admitting to the yips. I didn’t use the word ‘yip’ at the time. Nobody wants to use that word, but I’m over it now so I can use it. The whole world saw it.”


Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


Na, who made headlines for his struggles to begin his backswing when he found himself in the lead at the 2012 Players Championship, said he asked other players who had gone through similar bouts with the game’s most dreaded ailment how they were able to get through it.

“It took time,” he said. “I forced myself a lot. I tried breathing. I tried a trigger. Some guys will have a forward press or the kick of the right knee. That was hard and the crap I got for it was not easy.”

The payoff, however, has steadily arrived this season. Na said he’d been confident with his game this season following a runner-up showing at the Genesis Open and a fourth-place finish at the Fort Worth Invitational, and he felt he was close to a breakthrough. But being able to finish a tournament like he did at The Greenbrier, where he won by five strokes, was particularly rewarding.

“All good now,” he smiled. “I knew I was good enough to win again, but until you do it sometimes you question yourself. It’s just the honest truth.”

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Koepka still has chip on his chiseled shoulder

By Ryan LavnerJuly 17, 2018, 3:06 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Brooks Koepka prepared more for this Open than last year's.

He picked up his clubs three times.

That’s three more than last summer, when the only shots he hit between the summer Opens was during a commercial shoot for Michelob Ultra at TPC Sawgrass. He still tied for sixth at The Open a month later.

This time, Koepka kept his commitment to play the Travelers, then hit balls three times between the final round in Hartford and this past Sunday, when he first arrived here at Carnoustie.

Not that he was concerned, of course.

Koepka’s been playing golf for nearly 20 years. He wasn’t about to forget to how to swing a club after a few weeks off.

“It was pretty much the same thing,” he said Tuesday, during his pre-tournament news conference. “I shared it with one of my best friends, my family, and it was pretty much the same routine. It was fun. We enjoyed it. But I’m excited to get back inside the ropes and start playing again. I think you need to enjoy it any time you win and really embrace it and think about what you’ve done.”

At Shinnecock Hills, Koepka became the first player in nearly 30 years to repeat as U.S. Open champion – a major title that helped him shed his undeserved reputation as just another 20-something talent who relies solely on his awesome power. In fact, he takes immense pride in his improved short game and putting inside 8 feet.

“I can take advantage of long golf courses,” he said, “but I enjoy plotting my way around probably - more than the bombers’ golf courses - where you’ve got to think, be cautious sometimes, and fire at the center of the greens. You’ve got to be very disciplined, and that’s the kind of golf I enjoy.”

Which is why Koepka once again fancies his chances here on the type of links that helped launch his career.

Koepka was out of options domestically after he failed to reach the final stage of Q-School in 2012. So he packed his bags and headed overseas, going on a tear on the European Challenge Tour (Europe’s equivalent of the Web.com circuit) and earning four titles, including one here in Scotland. That experience was the most fun and beneficial part of his career, when he learned to win, be self-sufficient and play in different conditions.


Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


“There’s certain steps, and I embraced it,” Koepka said. “I think that’s where a lot of guys go wrong. You are where you are, and you have to make the best of it instead of just putting your head down and being like, 'Well, I should be on the PGA Tour.' Well, guess what? You’re not. So you’ve got to suck it up wherever you are, make the best of it, and keep plugging away and trying to win everything you can because, eventually, if you’re good enough, you will get out here.”

Koepka has proved that he’s plenty good enough, of course: He’s a combined 20 under in the majors since the beginning of 2017, the best of any player during that span. But he still searches long and hard for a chip to put on his chiseled shoulder.

In his presser after winning at Shinnecock, Koepka said that he sometimes feels disrespected and forgotten, at least compared to his more-ballyhooed peers. It didn’t necessarily bother him – he prefers to stay out of the spotlight anyway, eschewing a media tour after each of his Open titles – but it clearly tweaked him enough for him to admit it publicly.

That feeling didn’t subside after he went back to back at the Open, either. On U.S. Open Sunday, ESPN’s Instagram page didn’t showcase a victorious Koepka, but rather a video of New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. dunking a basketball.

“He’s like 6-foot-2. He’s got hops – we all know that – and he’s got hands. So what’s impressive about that?” Koepka said. “But I always try to find something where I feel like I’m the underdog and put that little chip on my shoulder. Even if you’re No. 1, you’ve got to find a way to keep going and keep that little chip on.

“I think I’ve done a good job of that. I need to continue doing that, because once you’re satisfied, you’re only going to go downhill. You try to find something to get better and better, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Now 28, Koepka has a goal of how many majors he’d like to win before his career is over, but he wasn’t about to share it.

Still, he was adamant about one thing: “Right now I’m focused on winning. That’s the only thing I’ve got in my mind. Second place just isn’t good enough. I finished second a lot, and I’m just tired of it. Once you win, it kind of propels you. You have this mindset where you just want to keep winning. It breeds confidence, but you want to have that feeling of gratification: I finally did this. How cool is this?”

So cool that Koepka can’t wait to win another one.

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Despite results, Thomas loves links golf

By Jay CoffinJuly 17, 2018, 2:48 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Despite poor results in two previous Open Championships, Justin Thomas contends that he has what it takes to be a good links player. In fact, he believes that he is a good links player.

Two years ago at Royal Troon, Thomas shot 77 in the second round to tie for 53rd place. He was on the wrong side of the draw that week that essentially eliminated anyone from contention who played late Friday afternoon.

Last year at Royal Birkdale, Thomas made a quintuple-bogey 9 on the par-4 sixth hole in the second round and missed the cut by two shots.


Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


“I feel like I’ve played more than two Opens, but I haven’t had any success here,” Thomas said Tuesday at Carnoustie. “I feel like I am a good links player, although I don’t really have the results to show.”

Although he didn’t mention it as a reason for success this week, Thomas is a much different player now than he was two years ago, having ascended to the No. 1 position in the world for a few weeks and now resting comfortably in the second spot.

He also believes a high golf IQ, and the ability to shape different shots into and with the wind are something that will help him in The Open over the next 20 years.

“I truly enjoy the creativity,” Thomas said. “It presents a lot of different strategies, how you want to play it, if you want to be aggressive, if you want to be conservative, if you want to attack some holes, wait on certain winds, whatever it might be. It definitely causes you to think.

“With it being as firm as it is, it definitely adds a whole other variable to it.”