Obstacle course: Haas' biggest challenger is Copperhead

By Ryan LavnerMarch 13, 2016, 12:17 am

PALM HARBOR, Fla. – From the claustrophobic opening tee shot – down a hill, into a landing area that looks like the size of a bowling alley – to the nerve-wracking finishing hole – with deep bunkers guarding both sides of the fairway to a raised green – Innisbrook’s Copperhead Course doesn’t offer much relief for a frontrunner.

“It can go either direction really fast,” Ryan Moore said Saturday. “No lead is safe on this golf course.”

He would know, of course.

A year ago, Moore was in prime position to earn his fifth PGA Tour title when he tripped up on the back nine, making three bogeys in his last six holes. He finished two shots out of the three-man playoff, an afterthought following Jordan Spieth’s heroics in regulation and in extras.

“I had it right there,” he said. “It was in my hands.”

But Moore is far from the only third-round leader who has struggled to close the deal here; in fact, four of the last five winners have come from behind.

Bill Haas, who leads by one at 8-under 205, is well aware of the challenge ahead on a course that is demanding from tee to green.

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“It’s just every hole seems like, all right, here we go again, which I think is good for tomorrow,” Haas said. “It’s going to keep me in the frame of mind that if I do bogey early, it’s OK, because people are making bogeys out here. You’re not seeing many runs of birdies.”

Innisbrook is the best course on the Florida swing because it doesn’t play favorites. It’s why recent winners here include both basher Gary Woodland and bunter Luke Donald. It’s why the current leaderboard features both Graham DeLaet and Moore. With more of an emphasis on strategy than power, the Copperhead Course removes the bombers’ inherent advantage and puts everyone in virtually the same spot in the fairway.

“There’s certainly a lot of thinking going on out there,” Haas said.

The six-time Tour winner fired his second consecutive 67 on Saturday, which matched his best score here in 29 attempts. He credited a swing thought from his famous father, Jay, who flew in Tuesday.

“I was just hoping he would have the magical touch and change it for me,” Haas said, and the tip – to abbreviate his follow-through but still hit a full shot – has worked wonders. He is ranked fourth this week in the Tour’s strokes gained-tee to green statistic.

“Without him coming down, I might not have even made the weekend,” Haas said. “It was very valuable.”

He is one stroke clear of DeLaet, who surged into contention after smashing a 268-yard 3-wood to set up a short eagle on 14. The Canadian added a birdie on the difficult 16th as he looks to be known more his play than his epic beard.

“I think tomorrow is going to be the day,” said DeLaet, who is winless in 137 starts. “Every time I’m in this position I say the politically correct things. I’m going to go and win this golf tournament tomorrow.” 

Among those chasing are 49-year-old Steve Stricker, who is searching for his first win in four years, and Patrick Reed, who is four shots back and looking to avenge last year’s playoff loss. Spieth, the defending champion, is only six back despite an opening 76.

Making the final round even more intriguing is the less-than-perfect greens, which were resurfaced last summer and are running significantly slower than a typical Tour course. Players have left a number of putts short on the sticky greens, but the pursuers will be more aggressive in the final round, knowing they have to press the issue and that the ball won’t trickle out to that uncomfortable distance.

“It’s a conscious effort to try and get the ball to the hole,” Moore said.

Throw in a forecast that calls for possible thunderstorms and a sustained 15-mph wind, and the final round should produce plenty of volatility on the leaderboard. Nothing new there.

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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.