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'This is now': How times have changed for Tiger, Phil

By Ryan LavnerApril 3, 2018, 8:27 pm

AUGUSTA, Ga. – At 8:50 a.m. Tuesday, with the sun just starting to peek through the Georgia pines, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson marched all the way back to the 11th tee together. A group of about 100 fans eagerly awaited their arrival, cameras ready.

“Take a picture,” an elderly spectator whispered to his friend. “I never thought I’d see this.”

Woods and Mickelson hadn’t played a tournament practice round together in 20 years, since the 1998 Nissan Open in Los Angeles, since Mickelson reportedly won the money match and then left photos and a note in Woods’ locker, joking about the Benjamins he’d taken off of him. Woods apparently didn’t appreciate the gag.

Neither superstar could have imagined the two decades that would follow – the dozens of titles, and the scandals, and the health concerns. And yet none of that seemed to matter on a sun-drenched morning at Augusta National, as Woods and Mickelson toured the back nine in front of packed grandstands - two aging warriors as popular, relevant, friendly and competitive as ever.

That alone seemed inconceivable at this time last year.

Mickelson was nearly four years removed from his last victory, fighting his driver and trying to maintain his energy and concentration for 72 holes. Woods would have loved those problems. Arriving at Augusta without his clubs for the second consecutive year, he endured shooting pain down his leg at the Champions Dinner. A few weeks later, he underwent a last-ditch fusion surgery to try and salvage his quality of life. Saving his career was a bonus.

“There were some really dark times,” he said.

And now?

Mickelson steamrolls into Augusta with his confidence as high as it’s ever been. He posted four consecutive top-6 finishes on Tour for the first time in his career, then capped off that run with a slump-busting victory in Mexico, in a World Golf Championship event, after outdueling the hottest player in the world, Justin Thomas.

In 1986, when Jack Nicklaus turned back the clock and took the Masters at age 46, it was a historic achievement that defied the odds and suspended belief. A Mickelson victory this week wouldn’t engender the same emotions. Not even close. Few would be surprised if he slipped into a fourth green jacket – not just because players’ careers are longer these days, thanks to better fitness and equipment, but because of Mickelson’s quality of play lately.    

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“Once I finally did break through and win, I’m going to peel off quite a few more,” he said. “So I’ve just had the first one, and it’s time to start peeling off a few more.”

Woods roars into Augusta pain-free and with a startling amount of power and speed. During the Valspar Championship, one of the Trackman computers clocked his swing speed at 129 mph – the highest mark on Tour this season – which led him to later remark that he’s a “walking miracle.”

“Some things never change,” Mickelson joked. “I can’t keep up with him.”

Their notoriously frosty relationship has thawed in recent years, since Woods has been out, since he has expressed a desire to be involved with the U.S. Ryder Cup team. In the run-up to the matches at Hazeltine, Mickelson said that he and Woods talked on an everyday basis. Players on that squad mentioned how the game’s two biggest stars laughed and swapped stories, putting aside a two-decade rivalry for the good of the team. The rest of the Americans followed their lead, snapping a three-match losing streak, then dominating the Presidents Cup last fall.

That chumminess has trickled down into tournament play, too. After Woods’ runner-up finish in Tampa, Mickelson texted him encouragement. “It felt like it was a different time continuum because I found myself pulling so hard for him,” Mickelson said. “It was unusual. And I find that I want him to play well, and I’m excited to see him play so well. And he is playing well.”

There was no elaborate story behind their practice-round grouping Tuesday, a surprising partnership that dominated the early-week discussion here at the Masters. Mickelson merely bumped into Woods’ caddie, Joe LaCava, on Monday and asked if they were free for a game. Fred Couples and Thomas Pieters joined the group, and that was unfortunate for them, because the Woods-Mickelson pairing played a five-hole stretch on the back nine in 7 under.

Rory McIlroy saw Woods on the range afterward and said, with a smile: “Never thought I’d see the day, Tiger and Phil playing a practice round at Augusta.”

Woods laughed, but he recognizes not just their evolving relationship, but also their place in today’s game.

“We’re at the tail end of our careers – we both know that,” he said. “We have had a great 20-year battle, and hopefully we’ll have a few more. But we understand where we are in the game now versus where we were in our early 20s, battling for who is going to be No. 1. That was then, and certainly this is now.”

Now is a chance for Woods to author one of the most improbable comebacks in sports history.

Now is a chance for Mickelson to become the oldest Masters champion, and to tie Woods with four green jackets.

And now is a chance for both players to take it to the young studs who have dominated the game, to remind them that their time hasn’t expired just yet.

Tuesday might not be the last time they see each other, either.

“They may be paired together on Sunday,” Couples said.

Everyone would snap a picture of that.

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Four players vying for DJ's No. 1 ranking at Open

By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 8:41 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Four players have an opportunity to overtake Dustin Johnson for world No. 1 this week.

According to Golf Channel world-rankings guru Alan Robinson, Justin Thomas, Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm each can grab the top spot in the world ranking.

Thomas’ path is the easiest. He would return to No. 1 with either a win and Johnson finishing worse than solo third, or even a solo runner-up finish as long as Johnson finishes worse than 49th.

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Twenty years after his auspicious performance in The Open, Rose can get to No. 1 for the first time with a victory and Johnson finishing worse than a two-way tie for third.

Kopeka can rise to No. 1 if he wins consecutive majors, assuming that his good friend posts worse than a three-way tie for third.

And Rahm can claim the top spot with a win this week, a Johnson missed cut and a Thomas finish of worse than solo second.   

Johnson’s 15-month reign as world No. 1 ended after The Players. He wasn’t behind Thomas for long, however: After a tie for eighth at the Memorial, Johnson blew away the field in Memphis and then finished third at the U.S. Open to solidify his position at the top.

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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, 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.”

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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.