Hole-outs a major part of Spieth's arsenal

By Ryan LavnerAugust 14, 2015, 10:03 pm

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – As Jordan Spieth marched toward the 18th green Friday at Whistling Straits, he expected his ball to be sitting pretty, in the flat of the bunker.

From previous conversations with local caddies here, Spieth learned that there was more sand in the bunkers on 18 than any of the other 1,000-plus on the course, but because he hit hybrid into the green he wasn’t anticipating a plugged lie. It turned out to be even worse – his ball was nestled atop soft sand against the craggy back lip.

“This is an impossible spot,” he groaned.


By now, we know better than that.

“There was a little bit of hyperbole there,” caddie Michael Greller said later, breaking into a grin, “because that way he can feel that much better when he hits a great shot. When he says it’s impossible, that usually means it’s really tough, not necessarily impossible.”

And so, yes, this one was tough, really tough, so tough that Spieth thought about slashing out 10 feet right of the flag just so he could have an unobstructed backswing. His swing had to be straight up and down, and there was no margin for error.

Catch it fat, and he’d be stuck with another bunker shot.

Catch it thin, and he’d looking at double bogey. Or worse.

Spieth chose the brave option, lining up to the right and cutting across the ball.

“You could just hear the perfect sound of a bunker shot,” Greller said.

“I struck it absolutely perfectly,” Spieth said.

PGA Championship: Full-field scores

His ball landed on the green, hopped, checked and turned right, as if riding down an off-ramp. Perfect pace, straight into the cup.

Spieth said that he would have been a “very, very happy guy” just to walk off with a 4. How about a birdie-3, a two-shot swing with one shot?

“The best bunker shot I’ve ever seen him hit,” Greller said.

It was another highlight-reel shot in a year (and career) full of them, and it was a much-needed spark that propelled Spieth to three more birdies and a 5-under 67 that gave him a realistic shot at a third major this year. At 6-under 138, he’s only one shot off the clubhouse lead at this PGA Championship.

When the ball dropped into the cup, Greller smiled and held up two fingers – the number of hole-outs this week, after Spieth chipped in for birdie on the 12th hole Thursday.

Of course, Spieth’s right-hand man would need four hands to count the number of drained chips, pitches and iron shots this season. The two hole-outs this week bumped the world No. 2’s total to 16, which puts him two back of the PGA Tour lead.

More than the quantity, though, it’s the quality of the hole-outs that makes Greller shake his head. They always seem to come when Spieth needs them most, when the moment is the biggest, when he needs to turn the momentum.

He’s been demoralizing his opponents for years. The only difference now is that his heroics are televised.

Start with the 2012 NCAA Championship at Riviera. In a tight singles match against Alabama’s Justin Thomas – heard of him? – Spieth holed a long approach shot on the 15th hole en route to a crucial victory that lifted Texas to its first national title in 40 years.

“I’ve seen it so many times, nothing really surprises me,” Longhorns coach John Fields said at the time. “He has that intangible to hit an amazing shot at the right time.”

Then there was the 2013 Puerto Rico Open. Losing ground during the birdie-fest, Spieth aced the 11th hole during the third round and wound up finishing in a tie for second, a crucial result for a player with no status on any major tour.

That finish got him into the next week’s tournament, in Tampa. Needing a birdie on one of the last two holes at Innisbrook to earn special temporary membership – and allow him to receive unlimited sponsor exemptions for the rest of the season – Spieth’s shot on 17 ended up short and right of the green, leaving him a tricky shot to a back-right pin. From a gnarly lie, he had only one option: a high, soft, flop shot. He jarred it.

That status paved the way for other starts that season, including the John Deere Classic, where he one-hopped a bunker shot on the 72nd hole to get into a playoff, which he eventually won.

And that victory got him into the 2014 Masters, where in the final round he holed a greenside bunker shot on the difficult fourth hole to grab a two-shot lead. He slipped into the green jacket a year later.

According to the PGA Tour’s ShotLink system, Spieth had 15 hole-outs in 2013, 12 in ’14 and now has 16 this season … with four-and-a-half events to go.

Keep in mind the Tour average is six hole-outs per season.

“Good lies, I guess,” Spieth smirked. “The pins seem to be soft when I hit chip shots sometimes.”

Greller had a more reasonable explanation for how his boss is able to summon short-game magic at the most opportune times: “He’s one of the best short-game players in the world. He’s always had great touch, even when I first met him. He has great control of the face, and he’s able to look at lies and understand how it’s going to come out. That’s him being very cerebral and smart – that’s his high golf IQ. He’s able to assess the situation.”

Spieth’s two chip-ins this week could play a pivotal role come Sunday.

He had made 10 consecutive pars and was coming off a sloppy bogey on 11 Thursday when Greller stepped in and delivered a pep talk.

Spieth’s third shot had come to rest on the back of the 12th green, and he couldn’t get a drop with a sprinkler head between him and the cup. He chose a 52-degree wedge, bumped his ball onto the green and banked it off the stick. A few hours later, he signed for another under-par round in a major.

“That changed his frame of mind,” Greller said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen this weekend, but if that goes 10 feet by and we miss, I think it’s a different spot than we are now.”

After his bunker shot on 18 Friday, Spieth – who began his round on the back nine – made birdie on two of his next three holes and carded a 67, even though he found only 12 greens and the medium-length hitter (285-yard average) struggled to find the proper lines off the tee.

It was a quintessential Spieth round, and afterward he chalked up his good position to smart course management and his sterling short game – of the 12 greens he’s missed, he has gotten up and down all but once (including the two chip-ins) and whiffed just one putt inside 10 feet.

“He’s the prime example of someone whose game is very efficient when he gives himself chances,” said Rory McIlroy, who was grouped with Spieth for the first two rounds here. “Especially today he took them, and then when he got out of position he was able to get it up and down.”

Spieth has such a knack for scoring that he and Greller made a little wager at the start of the season.

Last year, they set the over/under on Spieth’s number of hole-outs at 12. Spieth had 13.

And so this year, the target was set at 13. Anything over that mark, Spieth wins. Loser buys dinner.

He reached 13 last week at Firestone with a most Spiethian birdie: tugged drive into the rough, flier over the green, and then a rammed chip that would have raced 10 feet past.

“Anything from now on is a win,” he boasted afterward. “I've got it.”

Two days later, he won the bet.

“It felt nice,” he said.

They can add two more to the total this week … or is it four?

Greller counts major hole-outs as double, so he figures Spieth actually has 18 this season.

One thing is certain: Next year, he won’t set the bar so low.

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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, GolfChannel.com 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?’”