Scar tissue not an issue for DJ (66) at PGA

By Ryan LavnerAugust 13, 2015, 9:11 pm

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – Prowling around Whistling Straits, Dustin Johnson doesn’t look and sound like a player burdened by his inglorious history here.

Before the opening round of the PGA Championship, Johnson’s swing coach, Butch Harmon, suggested that his prized pupil scale it back on his opening hole, the short 10th, and get into position with a 2-iron.  

“No, I’m gonna send it and drive the green,” Johnson woofed. “I’m gonna send it all day.”

He ended up opting for a 3-wood that set up an opening birdie, but his message was clear: Another layer of major-championship scar tissue wasn’t going to stop Johnson from what he does best.

Attack, attack, attack.

Time and time again Thursday he wailed away on driver, pounding tee shots into the throats of the fairways and setting up short birdie looks on his way to yet another lead in a major. His opening 6-under 66 was his best round ever at Pete Dye’s masterpiece, a round that surely stirred the golf gods.

There’s no hiding from the redemption storyline, not this week, not after what happened two months ago at Chambers Bay and what happened here at Whistling Straits in 2010. 

Johnson isn’t one for introspection, especially not in a news-conference setting, and when he was asked about his 72nd-hole bunker gaffe (over and over again), he replied with a grin: “I don’t really think about it unless someone asks me the question.”

Though Johnson might not say it publicly, there’s a sense that this place owes him. 

PGA Championship: Round 1 scores

At least he doesn’t have to worry about making the same mistake. A spectator grandstand now covers that sandy, trampled-down area, and on Thursday, when he played the hole in competition for the first time since, he bludgeoned a 313-yarder that sailed over the bunker complex down the left – a ridiculous line the rest of the field can’t even consider.  

Did he pull it? Sure. Did he get away with it? You bet. Oh, what he would have given for a prodigious pop like that 1,824 days ago.

“Right now,” Jason Day said, “he’s putting himself in positions where 95 or 99 percent of the players that are playing this week aren’t there.”

Another example: On the 489-yard fourth hole, and with the wind whipping into his face, Johnson ripped a 337-yard drive down the left side that left him only a sand wedge into the green. He made birdie.

“That’s just freakish to be able to do that,” Day said.

On the fifth, a dogleg-right par 5 that looks as though it was imported from South Florida, Johnson aimed at a row of lights in the distance and sent his drive at least 50 yards right of his fellow playing competitors, Day and Rickie Fowler, both of whom are long hitters. It didn’t work out – Johnson’s tee ball was knocked down by the wind and wound up in the fescue – but he didn’t catch all of it, either. He still made a routine par.

Indeed, Johnson’s 66 in increasingly difficult conditions was about the worst score he could have shot on Day 1, considering the number of putts inside 15 feet that didn’t drop. Overall, he averaged 312 yards off the tee, hit 15 greens and was only in trouble once, on the par-3 third, when he failed to get up-and-down from left of the green.

It was his third consecutive first-round lead at a major, the first time a player has completed that hat trick since 1958.

“Today was pretty easy, I have to say,” he said afterward.

But this has also been the easy part, at least lately.

In Johnson's last six major starts, he’s a combined 37 under par with a 67.9 scoring average in Rounds 1 and 2. 

Over the last two rounds? A scoring average that is nearly four shots higher (71.8), with a cumulative score of 6 over par.

The most curious case came last month at St. Andrews, where he opened up a one-shot lead at the halfway point, but went 75-75 over the last two days and faded to 49th.

“I know I was leading after two rounds,” he said, “but I didn’t feel like I was playing that good of golf. I wasn’t too comfortable with my swing. I wasn’t hitting the shots that I wanted to hit. I didn’t feel like I was too much in control.”

The same feeling existed last week at Firestone, a venue that should fit Johnson’s eye, for it rewards good driving. But he struggled off the tee and shot 11 over on the weekend, plummeting out of contention.

With Harmon’s help, Johnson tweaked his takeaway – he was picking up the club to the outside – and before long was back to the bombs-away approach that makes him the game’s most tantalizing tease.

Will another torrid start lead to his first major title, to a redemption story for the ages?

Johnson wasn’t ready to even consider the possibility. No outright first-round leader at the PGA has gone on to win since 1983, and besides, he knows better than most the potential trouble that lurks around every dune and bunker here.

“It’s only the first round,” he said. “We’ve still got a lot of golf to play.”

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Tiger Tracker: 147th Open Championship

By Tiger TrackerJuly 20, 2018, 2:30 pm

Tiger Woods shot his second consecutive 70 on Friday at Carnoustie and enters weekend play at even par for the championship, still in contention for major No. 15.

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Scott and Sunesson a one-week partnership

By Rex HoggardJuly 20, 2018, 2:13 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Adam Scott has been in between caddies for the last month and went with a bold stand-in for this week’s Open Championship, coaxing veteran looper Fanny Sunesson out of retirement to work for him at Carnoustie.

Sunesson caddied for Nick Faldo in his prime, as the duo won four major titles together. She also worked for Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia before a back injury forced her to retire.

But for this week’s championship, Scott convinced the Swede to return to the caddie corps. The results have been impressive, with the Australian following an opening 71 with a second-round 70 for a tie for 16th place.

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“It's been going great. Fanny is, obviously, a fantastic caddie, and to be able to have that experience out there with me is certainly comforting,” Scott said. “We've gotten along really well. She's picked up on my game quickly, and I think we think about things in a very similar way.”

Scott was also asked about a potential long-term partnership between the duo, but he didn’t sound hopeful.

“It's just for this week,” he said. “It would be up to her, but I don't think she's making plans of a comeback. I was being a bit opportunistic in contacting her and coaxing her out of retirement, I guess. But I think she's having a good week. We'll just take it one week at the moment.”

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After tense Augusta Sunday, Rory ready to be aggressive

By Ryan LavnerJuly 20, 2018, 1:51 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Rory McIlroy temporarily lost his superpowers during the Masters.  

In one of the most surprising rounds of the year, he played tentatively and carefully during the final day. Squaring off against the major-less Patrick Reed, on the brink of history, with the backing of nearly the entire crowd, it was McIlroy who shrank in the moment, who looked like the one searching for validation. He shot a joyless 74 and wound up six shots behind Reed.

No, the final round was nowhere near as dispiriting as the finale in 2011, but McIlroy still sulked the following week. He binge-watched TV shows. Devoured a few books. Guzzled a couple of bottles of wine. His pity party lasted a few days, until his wife, Erica, finally dragged him out of the house for a walk.

Some deeper introspection was required, and McIlroy revealed a healthier self-analysis Friday at Carnoustie. He diagnosed what went wrong at Augusta, and then again two months later at the U.S. Open, where he blew himself out of the tournament with an opening 80.

“I was worrying too much about the result, not focusing on the process,” he said. “Sunday at Augusta was a big learning curve for me because, even if I hadn’t won that tournament, but I went down swinging and aggressive and committing to every shot, I would have walked away a lot happier.”

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

And so McIlroy has a new mantra this week at The Open.

Let it go.

Don’t hold back. Don’t worry about the repercussions. Don’t play scared.

“I’m committed to making sure, even if I don’t play my best golf and don’t shoot the scores I want, I’m going to go down swinging, and I’m going to go down giving my best,” he said. “The result is the byproduct of all the little things you do to lead up to that. Sometimes I’ve forgotten that, and I just need to get back in that mindset.”

It’s worked through two rounds, even after the cool, damp conditions led McIlroy to abandon his ultra-aggressive strategy. He offset a few mistakes with four birdies, shooting a second consecutive 69 to sit just a couple of shots off the lead.

During a sun-splashed first round, McIlroy gleefully banged driver on almost every hole, flying or skirting the bunkers that dot these baked-out, undulating fairways. He wasn’t particularly accurate, but he also didn’t need to be, as the thin, wispy rough enabled every player to at least advance their approach shots near the green.

Friday’s weather presented a different challenge. A steady morning rain took some of the fire out of parched fairways, but the cooler temperatures also reduced much of the bombers’ hang time. Suddenly, all of the bunkers were in play, and McIlroy needed to adjust his driver-heavy approach (he hit only six) on the fly.

“It just wasn’t worth it,” he said.

McIlroy hit a few “skanky” shots, in his words, but even his bigger misses – on the sixth and 17th holes – were on the proper side, allowing him to scramble for par and keep the round going.

It’s the fifth time in his career that he’s opened a major with back-to-back rounds in the 60s. He’s gone on to win three of the previous four – the lone exception that disastrous final round (80) at Augusta in 2011.

“I don’t want to say easy,” he said, “but it’s felt comfortable.”

The weekend gets uncomfortable for everyone, apparently even four-time major winners who, when in form, ooze confidence and swagger.

Once again McIlroy has that look at a major.

The only thing left to do?

Let it go.

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Z. Johnson may have to pay for the jet home

By Rex HoggardJuly 20, 2018, 1:23 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Zach Johnson will have some bragging rights when he gets back to the ultimate golf frat house on Friday after a second-round 67 moved him into the lead at The Open.

Johnson is rooming with Jordan Spieth, Jason Dufner, Kevin Kisner, Jimmy Walker, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler this week at Carnoustie. It’s a tradition that began two years ago at Royal Troon.

Kisner joked on Thursday after he took the first-round lead that the perks for the house/tournament front-runner were limited: “I probably get to eat first,” he said.

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

There is, however, one running wager.

“Two years ago we, I don't know if you call it bet, but agreement that, if you win, you get the jet and you buy it, so we go home,” said Johnson, who added that because of varying travel arrangements, the wager might not be needed this year. “I didn't pay last year. Somebody else did.”

Spieth won last year’s championship at Royal Birkdale.

Despite the expense, Johnson said he didn’t know how much it costs to charter a private flight back to the United States, but it’s a good problem to have.

“I’d be happy to fork it over,” he smiled.