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Eight huge questions for golf in 2018

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 2, 2018, 7:00 pm

A new year means new storylines. And though some might wish 2017 never ended (here’s looking at you, JT), others couldn’t wait for the calendar to flip to January 1.

Here are eight burning questions as we roll into 2018:

1. Can the U.S. Win the Ryder Cup?

It’s the most-anticipated event of 2018, and it’s not particularly close. The Americans haven’t won a Ryder Cup on foreign soil since 1993, a squad that was captained, coincidentally, by Tom Watson, whose disastrous reign was the impetus for this U.S. revival. Over the past two international team competitions, the Americans have won by a combined score of 36-22.

Promisingly, the same core will make the trip to France in September, where they will take on a European team headlined by Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm and Tommy Fleetwood, but whose foundation is built on aging leaders such as Henrik Stenson, Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia.

Never has snapping the U.S. team’s 25-year drought seemed more attainable. Which only adds to the pressure.


2. What Does Tiger Have Left in the Tank?

Here we are again, contemplating Woods’ short- and long-term future an an auspicious return at the Hero World Challenge. We did this very thing last year … except this time it feels different, more promising, after he showed plenty of speed following his last-ditch fusion surgery and vowed to go it alone with his swing.

That last part is important: Over the past few years, it was painfully clear that Woods’ brilliant golf mind was cluttered (remember “release patterns”?) as he morphed from artist to scientist. Woods’ holiday news dump that he’s ditching swing coach Chris Como was welcome news – not because Como had Woods on the wrong path but because it shows that Woods is once again taking ownership of his game, that he’s relying more on his instincts and less on technique.

As of this writing, it’s not yet known what the early part of his 2018 schedule will look like, but here’s hoping (perhaps unrealistically) that it doesn’t include Torrey Pines or any unnecessary international travel. He has only one chance to make this “comeback” work, so he needs to pick his spots where he can fine-tune for the majors.


3. Is It Make-Or-Break Time for Rory?

The former world No. 1 was so out of sorts by the end of his disappointing 2017 campaign that he decided to shut it down for the last three months of the year. That should have been ample time to heal both his injured rib and his battered psyche.

Instead of challenging Spieth as golf’s alpha dog, McIlroy hasn’t looked like the same dominant player over the past few seasons, his hot streak in the 2016 playoffs skewing what was another pedestrian year. Injuries have been a factor, no doubt, but the holes in his game (shaky putting and shoddy wedge play) were obvious, and his occasional disappearing acts prompted some to question his motivation and desire.

Announcing an ambitious, PGA Tour-centric schedule with eight events in the lead-up to the Masters suggests that the fire is back, and hopefully he’ll be sharp by early April.

The game is more interesting with Rory in the mix.


4. What Will Justin Thomas Do For an Encore?

At this time last year, Thomas was among the Tour’s most promising up-and-comers whose only titles had come in Malaysia. He matched that win total with a Hawaiian doubleheader, then kept rolling with three more victories, including his first major at the PGA, to sweep the FedExCup and Player of the Year honors. So complete was his game, he checked off nearly all of his individual goals.

Thomas has always thrived when playing with a Kentucky-sized chip on his shoulder, but slights are hard to find now. He’s the third-ranked player in the world, and no one refers to him as merely Jordan Spieth’s good buddy.

Where will his edge come from? That’s for Thomas to learn this year, his first as a bona fide superstar.


5. How Will Lexi (and Lydia) Rebound?

No player endured more on-course heartbreak than Thompson, the 22-year-old mega-talent whose self-inflicted miscues in bookend big events cost her a major, Player of the Year and the No. 1 ranking. (And that doesn’t even include the off-course distraction of her mother, Judy, being treated for uterine cancer.)

Sure, that’s a lot of scar tissue for someone so young, but Thompson is unlikely to be so careless again, either while marking her ball or attempting 2-footers.

She has all of the physical tools to take over the tour. (Despite her various blunders, she managed two victories and six runners-up last year.) What a story it’d be in 2018 if she finally does.

Though Thompson has never reached world No. 1, Ko is trying to return to the top after her 84-week run ended in June.

By any measure, 2017 was a massive disappointment for Ko, who went winless and baffled observers by changing swing coaches, equipment and caddies. Unlike Thompson, Ko doesn’t have the power to make up for average iron play and putting. If those areas don’t improve, her slide seems likely to continue, especially with the emergence of even more young South Korean talent.


6. What’s Next for Jordan Spieth?

The Golden Child is not a kid anymore – he’s engaged to high school sweetheart Annie Verrett – and his resume is all grown up, too.

His memorable run to the claret jug leaves him only one major shy of the career Grand Slam, and at 24, he’s still on a pace that puts him in the same conversation as Jack and Tiger.

Spieth’s game took a massive step forward in 2017. Viewed by many as just a red-hot putter, he became the best iron player in the game, leading the Tour in strokes gained-approach the green. Interestingly, it was his putter that cost him at times last year, and it’s fair to assume that he spent the majority of his offseason working on his stroke and his driver.

His average is nearly three wins a year, with a boatload of other top-10s, so count on similar production in 2018. The only question is whether he adds to his major haul.


7. Are the Governing Bodies and Equipment Manufacturers on a Collision Course?

It sure seems that way, with the endless chatter about the distance that today’s high-performance golf balls fly. (Which is a gross oversimplification of the issue, but that’s a column for another day.) That the USGA’s Mike Davis opined that the impact of the distance boom has been “horrible” set off alarms in Fairhaven and Carlsbad, though any implementation of a reduced-flight ball would be met with resistance, lawsuits and confusion.

It’s a messy situation that affects only about 20 players on the PGA Tour – no one on the LPGA or Champions circuit, and especially no one at your local club, is complaining about the ball going too far – but the optics are terrible when par 5s are reduced to driver-7-iron.

What’s the solution? Hey, beats us, but distance figures to be a hot topic all year, as will the revamped Rules of Golf set to go into effect in 2019.


8. Who is This Year’s Xander Schauffele?

Tip of the cap to those of you who tabbed Schauffele as the breakout star of a rookie class that included Bryson DeChambeau, Ollie Schniederjans and Wesley Bryan.

Because we sure didn’t see it coming.

Fighting for his card midway through the year, Schauffele starred at the U.S. Open, won his first title at the Greenbrier and then beat the Tour’s best at East Lake.  

This year’s list of newcomers includes former U.S. Amateur champion Peter Uihlein, Keith Mitchell and Aaron Wise. (Technically, Beau Hossler isn’t a rookie, but he already has a pair of top-10s this season.) Austin Cook has already won once, in Sea Island, and he won’t be the only newbie to hoist some hardware. 

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Schauffele just fine being the underdog

By Rex HoggardJuly 21, 2018, 8:06 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Following a breakthough season during which he won twice and collected the PGA Tour Rookie of the Year Award, Xander Schauffele concedes his sophomore campaign has been less than stellar, but that could all change on Sunday at The Open.

Schauffele followed a second-round 66 with a 67 on Saturday to take a share of the 9-under-par lead with Jordan Spieth and Kevin Kisner.

Although he hasn’t won in 2018, he did finish runner-up at The Players and tied for sixth at the U.S. Open, two of the year’s toughest tests.


Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


“Growing up, I always hit it well and played well in tough conditions,” Schauffele said. “I wasn't the guy to shoot 61. I was the guy to shoot like 70 when it was playing really hard.”

Sunday’s pairing could make things even more challenging when he’ll head out in the day’s final tee time with Spieth, the defending champion. But being the underdog in a pairing, like he was on Saturday alongside Rory McIlroy, is not a problem.

“All the guys I've talked to said, 'Live it up while you can, fly under the radar,'” he said. “Today I played in front of what you call Rory's crowd and guys were just yelling all the time, even while he's trying to putt, and he had to step off a few times. No one was yelling at me while I was putting. So I kind of enjoy just hanging back and relaxing.”

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Open odds: Spieth 7/1 to win; Tiger, Rory 14/1

By Golf Channel DigitalJuly 21, 2018, 7:54 pm

Only 18 holes remain in the 147th Open Championship at Carnoustie, and the man tied atop the leaderboard is the same man who captured the claret jug last year at Royal Birkdale.

So it’s little surprise that Jordan Spieth is the odds-on favorite (7/4) to win his fourth major entering Sunday’s final round.

Xander Schauffele and Kevin Kisner, both tied with Spieth at 9 under par, are next in line at 5/1 and 11/2 respectively. Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, both four shots behind the leaders, are listed at 14/1.

Click here for the leaderboard and take a look below at the odds, courtesy Jeff Sherman at golfodds.com.


Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


Jordan Spieth: 7/4

Xander Schauffele: 5/1

Kevin Kisner: 11/2

Tiger Woods: 14/1

Francesco Molinari: 14/1

Rory McIlroy: 14/1

Kevin Chappell: 20/1

Tommy Fleetwood: 20/1

Alex Noren: 25/1

Zach Johnson: 30/1

Justin Rose: 30/1

Matt Kuchar: 40/1

Webb Simpson: 50/1

Adam Scott: 80/1

Tony Finau: 80/1

Charley Hoffman: 100/1

Austin Cook: 100/1

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Spieth stands on brink of Open repeat

By Rex HoggardJuly 21, 2018, 7:49 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Jordan Spieth described Monday’s “ceremony” to return the claret jug to the keepers of the game’s oldest championship as anything but enjoyable.

For the last 12 months the silver chalice has been a ready reminder of what he was able to overcome and accomplish in 2017 at Royal Birkdale, a beacon of hope during a year that’s been infinitely forgettable.

By comparison, the relative pillow fight this week at Carnoustie has been a welcome distraction, a happy-go-lucky stroll through a wispy field. Unlike last year’s edition, when Spieth traveled from the depths of defeat to the heights of victory within a 30-minute window, the defending champion has made this Open seem stress-free, easy even, by comparison.

But then those who remain at Carnoustie know it’s little more than a temporary sleight of hand.

As carefree as things appeared on Saturday when 13 players, including Spieth, posted rounds of 67 or lower, as tame as Carnoustie, which stands alone as The Open’s undisputed bully, has been through 54 holes there was a foreboding tension among the rank and file as they readied for a final trip around Royal Brown & Bouncy.

“This kind of southeast or east/southeast wind we had is probably the easiest wind this golf course can have, but when it goes off the left side, which I think is forecasted, that's when you start getting more into the wind versus that kind of cross downwind,” said Spieth, who is tied for the lead with Xander Schauffele and Kevin Kisner at 9 under par after a 6-under 65. “It won't be the case tomorrow. It's going to be a meaty start, not to mention, obviously, the last few holes to finish.”

Carnoustie only gives so much and with winds predicted to gust to 25 mph there was a distinct feeling that playtime was over.

As melancholy as Spieth was about giving back the claret jug, and make no mistake, he wasn’t happy, not even his status among the leading contenders with a lap remaining was enough for him to ignore the sleeping giant.


Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


But then he’s come by his anxiousness honestly. Spieth has spent far too much time answering questions about an inexplicably balky putter the last few weeks and he hasn’t finished better than 21st since his “show” finish in April at the Masters.

After a refreshingly solid start to his week on Thursday imploded with a double bogey-bogey-par-bogey finish he appeared closer to an early ride home on Friday than he did another victory lap, but he slowly clawed his way back into the conversation as only he can with one clutch putt after the next.

“I'm playing golf for me now. I've kind of got a cleared mind. I've made a lot of progress over the year that's been kind of an off year, a building year,” said Spieth, who is bogey-free over his last 36 holes. “And I've got an opportunity to make it a very memorable one with a round, but it's not necessary for me to prove anything for any reason.”

But if an awakened Carnoustie has Spieth’s attention, the collection of would-be champions assembled around and behind him adds another layer of intrigue.

Kisner, Spieth’s housemate this week on Angus coast, has led or shared the lead after each round this week and hasn’t shown any signs of fading like he did at last year’s PGA Championship, when he started the final round with a one-stroke lead only to close with a 74 to tie for seventh place.

“I haven't played it in that much wind. So I think it's going to be a true test, and we'll get to see really who's hitting it the best and playing the best tomorrow,” said Kisner, who added a 68 to his total on Day 3.

There’s no shortage of potential party crashers, from Justin Rose at 4 under after a round-of-the-week 64 to 2015 champion Zach Johnson, who also made himself at home with Spieth and Kisner in the annual Open frat house and is at 5 under.

Rory McIlroy, who is four years removed from winning his last major championship, looked like a player poised to get off the Grand Slam schneid for much of the day, moving to 7 under with a birdie at the 15th hole, but he played the last three holes in 2 over par and is tied with Johnson at 5 under par. 

And then there’s Tiger Woods. For three magical hours the three-time Open champion played like he’d never drifted into the dark competitive hole that’s defined his last few years. Like he’d never been sidelined by an endless collection of injuries and eventually sought relief under the surgeon’s knife.

As quietly as Woods can do anything, he turned in 3 under par for the day and added two more birdies at Nos. 10 and 11. His birdie putt at the 14th hole lifted him temporarily into a share of the lead at 6 under par.

“We knew there were going to be 10, 12 guys with a chance to win on Sunday, and it's turning out to be that,” said Woods, who is four strokes off the lead. “I didn't want to be too far back if the guys got to 10 [under] today. Five [shots back] is certainly doable, and especially if we get the forecast tomorrow.”

Woods held his round of 66 together with a gritty par save at the 18th hole after hitting what he said was his only clunker of the day off the final tee.

Even that episode seemed like foreshadowing.

The 18th hole has rough, bunkers, out of bounds and a burn named Barry that weaves its way through the hole like a drunken soccer fan. It’s the Grand Slam of hazardous living and appears certain to play a leading role in Sunday’s outcome.

Perhaps none of the leading men will go full Jean Van de Velde, the star-crossed Frenchman who could still be standing in that burn if not for a rising tide back at the 1999 championship, but if the 499 yards of dusty turf is an uninvited guest, it’s a guest nonetheless.

It may not create the same joyless feelings that he had when he returned the claret jug, but given the hole’s history and Spieth’s penchant for late-inning histrionics (see Open Championship, 2017), the 18th hole is certain to produce more than a few uncomfortable moments.

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Wandering photographer costs McIlroy on 16

By Ryan LavnerJuly 21, 2018, 7:44 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Rory McIlroy bogeyed two of his last four holes Saturday to fall four shots off the lead at The Open.

One of those mistakes might not have entirely been his fault.

McIlroy missed a short putt on the par-3 16th after a photographer was “in a world all his own,” wandering around near the green, taking photos of the crowd and not paying attention to the action on the green.


Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


“It’s fine,” McIlroy said after a third-round 70 put him at 5-under 208, four shots off the lead. “It’s one of those things that happens. There’s a lot of people out there, and it is what it is. It’s probably my fault, but I just didn’t regroup well after it happened.”

McIlroy also bogeyed the home hole, after driving into a fairway bunker, sending his second shot right of the green and failing to get up and down.

“I putted well,” he said. “I holed out when I needed to. I just need to make the birdies and try to limit the damage tomorrow.”