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Monday Scramble: DJ's Kapalua crush

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 8, 2018, 4:00 pm

Dustin Johnson keeps rolling, Justin Thomas has caddie issues, Tiger Woods announces his early schedule, Rickie Fowler breaks tradition and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

Here we go again, another year in which DJ looks unstoppable.

There are maybe five players on the PGA Tour who can overwhelm the competition with their physical gifts, who can mash the accelerator and pull away.

The difference with Johnson – the reason he has blown past Rory McIlroy and Jason Day (for now) – is that he can access that awesome potential more consistently; this was his eighth win in the past 19 months.

His eight-shot romp at Kapalua immediately recalled his dominant form last spring, when he headed into the year’s first major with three consecutive victories, all in big events.

“I felt as close as I have to the level my game was during that stretch,” he said Sunday.

Of course, this being Johnson, the question now is whether the star-crossed talent can sustain it, through freak injury (please rent only ranch-style homes from now on) or something else.

Already, it looks like 2018 could be a special year.  

1. DJ might have already locked up Drive of the Year.

With the outcome no longer in doubt, he went at a driver 90 percent and pounded his tee shot down the hill on the 433-yard 12th. He knew his ball started on a good line, but he was stunned to see where it finished – 6 inches from the cup, for a tap-in eagle.

He joked to Golf Channel on-course reporter Jim “Bones” Mackay that he’d caught his drive a little thin.

In reality, he said, “that was flush.”


2. Johnson led the field in strokes gained-tee to green and off-the-tee. (He hit 15 drivers over 375 yards.) In the final round, he gained 4.09 strokes on the field with his driver, the best-ever round at Kapalua.

Sure, he missed a few fairways, but “I don’t think I hit a bad drive all week.”

Most interesting about that?

He was using a new driver, putting TaylorMade’s M4 in the bag last Saturday. 

3. Of his many incredible gifts, DJ’s short memory might serve him best.

It’s the reason why he was able to win the 2016 U.S. Open after several near-misses. And it’s why he was able to shrug off a record-tying loss in his most recent start on Tour, when he blew a six-shot lead in the final round at the WGC-HSBC Champions. 

Johnson insists that he didn’t even remember that loss until it was mentioned to him after his third round … and yet, after being asked about it repeatedly Saturday night in Hawaii, he set out on the final day to “prove to myself that ain’t going to happen again.”

He turned a two-shot lead into an eight-shot margin of victory, one off the tournament record. Johnson joined Hal Sutton (1983) as the only players to lose a six-shot lead and then win in their next start.



4. Justin Thomas had a few issues in paradise.

His game wasn’t as sharp as he’d hoped coming out of the gates, finishing 22nd after a closing 67, but an even bigger dilemma is who he’ll walk alongside during the next few events.

His regular caddie, Jimmy Johnson, has plantar fasciitis and will be in a walking boot for at least the next month. (It usually takes 3-12 months to fully heal.) Subbing in for the final two rounds at hilly Kapalua was Thomas’ father/swing coach, Mike.

This week? Well, good caddies are in short supply on the island, so he’s brought NBC/Golf Channel on-course reporter Jim “Bones” Mackay out of retirement; Bones hasn’t looped at Waialae since 1992.

After that, however, is uncertain. (Mackay’s stint is expected to only be one week, though NBC doesn’t broadcast an event until Honda.) Over the next two months Thomas is scheduled to play Sony, Phoenix, Riviera, Honda and Mexico.

Said Thomas: “I told [Johnson], ‘Look, I’d rather you take as much time as you need to get it better and make sure that you’re fresh come L.A., Match Play, Masters, whatever it is. I want him to be 100 percent again.” 

5. Keep an eye on Jordan Spieth’s putter during this run-up to Augusta.

The three-time major winner said that he spent a majority of his offseason working on his putting. That was the aspect of his game, remember, that slipped in 2017, dropping from second to 42nd in strokes gained-putting.

Spieth said he’s been grinding with swing coach Cameron McCormick since the Bahamas. He’s trying to get his posture and setup back to where it was in 2015-16, when he was at his best, when he primarily used his shoulders, not his hands, during the stroke. It’s unwise to rely too much on putting stats from Kapalua – it’s windy, and the massive greens are slow – but he ranked 30th out of 34 players in putting.

“It’s just stuff that needs on-course reps in tournament play, and I didn’t expect it to be on fire at all at the start,” he said, “and if it was, that would have been an advantage.” 

6. Jon Rahm won three times last year while playing courses he’d never seen before.

No surprise he kept rolling in his first trip around the Plantation Course.

He won the B flight at Kapalua, and the runner-up finish was his 14th top-5 in 37 pro starts.

The 23-year-old Spaniard moved to No. 3 in the world – the fourth-youngest to reach that mark, behind only Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy. 



7. It was little surprise that Tiger Woods’ early-season schedule will include both Torrey Pines and Riviera.

He’s an eight-time winner on the San Diego-area muni, and though the brawny track is no longer the ideal fit for his game, the nostalgia apparently was too much to ignore. Riviera, too, was a no-brainer, now that the event benefits his foundation. (It’ll be his first start at Riv since 2006.)

Though it would have been neat to see Woods ease into the season at courses like Waialae and PGA West, it was never going to happen. He’s nothing if not a creature of habit.

Honda and Bay Hill – two more difficult stops – would be the next logical additions to his pre-Masters schedule. At least there shouldn't be any unnecessary international travel.

8. The first week of the new year always brings with it a slew of equipment signings.

Sergio Garcia’s switch to Callaway was one of the worst-kept secrets in the sport, but a big surprise was Xander Schauffele’s move to the same company.

Schauffele is coming off a breakout season in which he won twice, including the Tour Championship, finished third in the FedExCup and earned Rookie of the Year honors.

He cashed in, but the decision carries some risk – the last Rookie of the Year to change equipment after his big first season was John Huh (2012-13). He hasn’t come close to replicating that success. 

Schauffele tied for 22nd at Kapalua.

A trend-setting Fowler wore an untucked Hawaiian shirt last week, and social media practically melted.

Though most were in favor of his Maui-themed garb, some were genuinely put off by his choice for the opening round.

This is laid-back golf, on an island, in a 34-man event … and yet a few curmudgeons thought he lacked “manners” and looked “unprofessional” and, yes, even that he should be fined. (That one was laughable, especially since PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said: “I thought it was fantastic.")

Never mind that it was the best-selling shirt in the Kapalua merchandise tent on Friday.

Keep doing you, Rick. 

This week's award winners ... 


What’s Up With …?: Brooks Koepka. After routing the field at the Dunlop Phoenix in November, the reigning U.S. Open champion finished last for the second tournament in a row – this time by six shots. Koepka has been battling discomfort in his left wrist, and most concerning, he said, is that doctors still don't know what's wrong. His manager said they're "planning to have some people look at it" this week.

RIP: DJ’s old irons. The clubs that Johnson used during his final-round collapse in Shanghai? Long gone. They never even made the trip home. “They’re probably still in my locker at whatever the golf course is called,” he said.

Worse Than Originally Thought: Jimmy Walker’s health. The 2016 PGA champion was plagued last year by the effects of Lyme disease, but his wife, Erin (who also contracted the disease), chronicled that Jimmy also tested positive for mononucleosis, two types of pneumonia, West Nile Virus and a virus common to children called CMV.

Experience is Overrated: Christopher Carns. This Clemson student, who says he’s never played golf before, drained a 94-foot putt at the Clemson-Louisville basketball game to win $10,000. Bonus points for accomplishing the feat in … slippers? 


Do It For Jarrod: Jarrod Lyle. The Tour has declared this “January for Jarrod month,” as the affable Australian undergoes another round of treatment for leukemia. Head here to help

No Shame in his Game: Ben Crane. There are no words for this. No words. 


What To Watch For: JT vs. Kiz. Your trusty correspondent’s Georgia Bulldogs will look to win their first national title since 1980 on Monday night, but even more is at stake – the loser of a friendly wager between Thomas (Alabama) and Kisner (UGA) has to wear the other team’s jersey this week at Waialae. Go Dawgs!

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Brendan Steele. A smart one-and-done pick because of his T-6 last year and his run of good form during the fall, when he defended his title at Safeway and tied for 13th in Malaysia. Alas, he shot 1 under – 23 shots behind DJ – and finished 29th. Sigh.  

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No indication when Trump Turnberry will next host an Open

By Jay CoffinJuly 18, 2018, 12:25 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Turnberry last hosted The Open in 2009, during that magical week where Tom Watson, at age 59, nearly won his sixth claret jug. Ultimately, Stewart Cink won in a playoff.

While Turnberry remains on The Open rota, according to the R&A, there is no clear understanding of when the club, purchased by Donald Trump in 2014 before he became President of the United States, will next host the championship. The next open date is 2022.

“With respect to 2022, I’ve already said, ’21 we’re going to be celebrating the 150th playing of The Open at St. Andrews,” R&A chief executive Marin Slumbers said Wednesday on the annual news conference on the eve of The Open. “And in ’22, we’ll be going south of the border.”


Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


South of the border means the 2022 Open will be at one of the three venues in England. Since the 2020 Open is at Royal St. George’s, that leaves Royal Lytham & St. Annes and Royal Liverpool as the two remaining options. Since Lytham (2012, Ernie Els) last hosted The Open before Liverpool (2014, Rory McIlroy), that’s the likely choice.

Trump was at Turnberry for two days last weekend, 150 miles southwest of Carnoustie. The R&A said it did not receive any communication from the U.S. president while he was in the country.

Turnberry hosted the Women’s British Open in 2015. Inbee Park beat Jin-young Park by three shots.

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Slumbers explains driver test; Rory weighs in

By Rex HoggardJuly 18, 2018, 12:18 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Players and manufacturers were informed about three weeks ago that the R&A intended to test individual drivers at this week’s Open Championship, marking the first time the rule makers have taken the current standards to players.

Although the R&A and USGA have been COR (coefficient of restitution) tests on drivers for some time, they have been pulling the tested clubs from manufacturers, not players.

“We take our governance role very seriously, not just on the Rules of Golf and amateur status, but also equipment standards, and we felt it was an appropriate next step to more actively seek to test players' drivers straight out of the bag,” said Martin Slumbers, the R&A’s chief executive.

Thirty players were notified their drivers would be tested this week - including Paul Casey, Brooks Koepka, Jason Day and Henrik Stenson - from a list that roughly mirrored the breakdown of various brands based on current equipment counts.


Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


The R&A test center was set up on the Carnoustie practice range, and according to Slumbers there were no violations of the testing limits, which essentially measure the spring-like effect of the driver clubface.

Although none of the drivers failed the testing, Rory McIlroy did say that TaylorMade was “singled out a bit more than anyone else.”

“A manufacturer is always going to try and find ways to get around what the regulations are. It's a bit of an arms race,” said McIlroy, who plays TaylorMade equipment but said his driver was not tested. “If there is some drivers out there that have went a little bit over the limit, then obviously guys shouldn't be playing them. I think the manufacturers are smart enough to know not to try to push it too much.”

There was no individual driver testing at last month’s U.S. Open, and it’s not expected to become the norm on the PGA Tour, but Slumbers did say the R&A tested drivers at an event earlier this year on the Japan Golf Tour.

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Carnoustie open to any number of scenarios

By Rex HoggardJuly 18, 2018, 12:07 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Carnoustie holds a distinct position within the Open Championship’s rotation of storied venues. It’s come by its nickname, Car-Nasty, honestly as the undisputed rough-and-tumble heavyweight of all the championship links.

Historically, Carnoustie is a beast. A punch in the mouth compared to the other stops on The Open dance card. If the likes of the Old Course and Muirfield are the fair ladies of the rotation, the Angus Coast brute would be the unfriendly bouncer.

As personas go, Carnoustie wears its reputation well, but the 147th edition of the game’s oldest championship has taken on a new look this week. It’s not so much the softer side of Carnoustie as it is a testament to the set up philosophy of the R&A.

Unlike its sister association in the United States, the R&A allows Mother Nature to decide what kind of test a championship will present and this Open is shaping up to be something far different than what the golf world is accustomed.

Instead of the thick, lush rough that ringed the fairways in 1999 and 2007, the last two stops at the par-71 layout, this year has a dust bowl feel to it. The stories have already become legend: Padraig Harrington hit a 457-yard drive on the 18th hole during a practice round that bounced and bounded into Barry Burn and on Monday Tiger Woods slashed a 333-yard 3-iron down the same power alley.

“It’s so fast. It’s nothing like ’99 – that was like a jungle. It was wet, rough was up, there was wind. In 2007, it was cold and green,” said Ernie Els, who has played two championships at Carnoustie. “But this is very, very dry. Very different.”


Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


Anywhere else these divergent conditions would simply be the nature of the game’s most hands-off major, but at Carnoustie it’s created an information vacuum and wild uncertainty.

Within a 48-hour window, two of the championship’s easy favorites offered diametrically contrasting philosophies on how they might play Carnoustie.

“There's eight or nine drivers we hit. Depending on the wind direction, we could hit more,” said Brooks Koepka, who won his second consecutive U.S. Open last month. “It's so burnt out, where there's a lot of opportunity where the rough's not quite as thick as I expected it to be.”

That was in contrast to how Jordan Spieth, this week’s defending champion, was thinking he would play the course.

“I talked to [caddie Michael Greller] a little bit about what he thinks, and he said, ‘You might hit a lot of 5-irons off the tee, you might wear out 5- and 4-irons off the tee instead of hitting 3- or 2-irons like you're used to,’” Spieth said.

Unlike previous championships that were played at Carnoustie, which were won by the player best prepared to take a punch, this one might come down to which strategy, controlled and calculated or bold and brash, works best.

In theory, the bombers seem to be on to something, primarily as a result of the dry conditions that have produced uncharacteristically thin and playable rough. The alternative is weaving irons in between the countless bunkers that pepper each fairway, which on links courses are widely considered true hazards compared to what players face at other major venues.

“I would definitely say it is a bomber’s course,” said Gary Woodland, who counts himself among the long-hitting set. “A lot of the bunkers here are 285, 290 [yards] to cover, for us that’s nothing. You can take them out of play, which normally isn’t the case because it’s windy and rainy over here.”

That line of thinking leads to a rather narrow list of potential contenders, from betting favorite Dustin Johnson to Rory McIlroy and Koepka. But that logic ignores the inherent unpredictability of The Open, where countless contenders have been undercut by the rub of a bad draw and the always-present danger of inclement weather.

Although this week’s forecast calls for continued dry weather, winds are currently forecast to reach 25 mph on Sunday which could upend game plans, regardless of how aggressive or conservative one intended to play the course.

Despite conventional thinking and the realities of a modern game that is being dominated more and more by long hitters, there are compelling arguments for the other side of the bash-or-bunt debate.

One needs to look no further than Woods’ record on similarly dusty tracks as an example of how a conservative approach can produce championship results. In 2006 at Royal Liverpool, Woods, who is playing his first Open since 2015, famously hit just one driver all week on his way to victory, and he was just as effective in 2000 at St. Andrews when the Old Course also played to a bouncy brown.

“It could be that way,” Woods said when asked to compare ’06 at Hoylake to this week. “Either case, I'm not going to hit that many long clubs off the tees.”

Adding to that uncertainty is Carnoustie’s track record in producing late drama on Sunday. This is, after all, the same slice of coast where Jean Van de Velde stepped to the 18th tee box with a three-stroke lead in 1999 only to slash his way to a closing triple-bogey 7 and the game’s most memorable, or regrettable, runner-up showing.

In ’07, the heartbreak went extra frames for Sergio Garcia, who appeared poised to win his first major championship before he bogeyed the last hole and lost a playoff to Harrington.

Even this week’s baked-out conditions can’t mitigate the importance and challenge of what many consider the most difficult Grand Slam finish; but the yellow hue has certainly created an added degree of uncertainty to an already unpredictable championship.

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Slumbers: Mickelson penalty 'not good for the game'

By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 11:44 am

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers said that Phil Mickelson’s controversial penalty at the U.S. Open was not “good for the game,” but he did not say explicitly whether the ruling would have been any different at The Open.

Speaking Wednesday at his annual address, Slumbers said that he spoke with Mickelson last week about the incident. At Shinnecock Hills, Mickelson hit a moving ball in the third round but was not disqualified for a breach of etiquette. Instead, he received a two-shot penalty under Rule 14-5.


Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


“In the event of a similar situation this week, clearly, the first thing is you understand the facts because you never get the same situation and there will be lots of reasons,” Slumbers said. “But we have looked very carefully at the rules, and I don’t think it was good for the game and not the right way to have played this wonderful sport, and we would make a decision based on the facts of any incident that happened later in the week.”

Rule 1-2, which includes a clause for disqualification, was not used because the infraction is covered under another rule.

“Let’s also remember that it’s a moot point for next year,” Slumbers said, “because as of the first of January 2019, there would have been a DQ option in that equivalent rule.”