New-era stars thriving with friends-first mentality

By Ryan LavnerAugust 14, 2017, 10:00 pm

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Last month, Justin Thomas stood behind the 18th green at Royal Birkdale, waiting to congratulate one of his pals on another major victory.

Wearing basketball shorts and a sweatshirt, Thomas, who had missed the cut two days earlier, politely answered questions about Jordan Spieth’s wild back nine, his remarkable ability to rebound from calamity, and what type of debauchery would ensue on their plane ride home.

This spot was nothing new for Thomas, of course. Once the mainstream sports media learned that Spieth and Thomas had competed against each other since they were 14, they became a package deal. But now Spieth had won again, resuming a historic major pace, and Thomas couldn’t help but feel as though he was losing ground.

“He’s not mad because Jordan wins,” said Mike Thomas, Justin’s father and swing coach. “He’s happy for Jordan. But he’s like, I’ve beaten Jordan before, and Jordan is winning [majors], so why can’t I do this, too?”

Sometimes, that’s all the motivation a player needs. A month after The Open, Thomas won his own major, surviving Quail Hollow’s notoriously difficult closing stretch to capture the PGA Championship.

This time, it was Spieth who waited behind the green to welcome his buddy into the major club.

“So awesome, dude,” he said.

The youth movement on the PGA Tour is here to stay, and these fun, rich, congenial, ambitious, social-media savvy and fiercely competitive 20-somethings seem to be propelling each other to new heights.

Gone is the edginess, the animosity, the simmering tension of other eras.

Jack and Arnie.

Faldo and Norman.

Tiger and Phil.

Today’s young stars forged these friendships a decade ago, when they were battling on the AJGA circuit. But now, instead of needling each other during practice rounds or heated games of Ping-Pong, they’re vying for a piece of history and the biggest titles in golf, all while raking in millions, flying in private jets and socializing with other famous athletes.


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The meteoric spike in prize and endorsement money may have dulled the motivation for the Tour’s middle class, but the elite, overflowing with swagger and ego, remain locked in an arms race, and no one wants to get left behind or forfeit bragging rights.

Do television viewers prefer bitter rivals over best buds? We’ll find out definitively over the next few years. But there’s little doubt this chummy dynamic has raised the quality of play, if not the intensity.

“It’s cool because you can learn so much from watching your friends play well and get the job done,” Rickie Fowler said. “It’s fun to see because it also motivates you to go out and push yourself to another level.

“It’s fun to see them play well and win, but at the same time it’s even more satisfying when you get to go out and beat all your buddies.”

On Sunday, it was Fowler who once again had a front-row seat. Make no mistake, he was thrilled for one of his closest friends, documenting Thomas’ speech, signing duties and plane ride home with the Wanamaker Trophy for his millions of Snapchat followers. But to hear Fowler on the 18th green, the moment clearly was bittersweet.  

“It’s a good kind of rivalry between all the young guys,” he said. “We’re all good friends. We all travel together. We all play practice rounds together. JT and I live right down the street from each other. It’s only going to push me even harder to want to get back and go beat him up the next time we tee it up.”

Members of the popular spring-break crew aren’t the only beneficiaries of the new fratty vibe on Tour.  

After winning the U.S. Open, Brooks Koepka credited his friendship with world No. 1 Dustin Johnson. After all, they work out together. Practice together. Play together. Wherever they are – in the gym, on the range, on the course – the bash brothers are competing. Partly through osmosis, then, Koepka became a major champion.

“Whenever you’re really good friends with somebody, that’s what happens, isn’t it?” said Koepka’s caddie, Ricky Elliott. “If you can do it, I can do it.”

And that’s what makes this new breed so appealing. Sure, there’s respect and admiration among the young stars, but there also is a serious case of trophy envy.

“That kind of shows where the game is right now, where all of us are,” Thomas said. “Obviously we all want to win. We want to beat the other person. But if we can’t win, then we at least want to enjoy it with our friends.

“I know it’s going to make them even more hungry, just like it did for me, seeing Jordan at the British.”

And just like it likely will for Fowler, who, during a five-minute interview Sunday, alternated between praising his pal and lamenting his own mistakes that cost him the title.

Unprompted, he said: “My time is coming. It’s not long.”

His friends will be waiting.

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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.”