PGA Champ. proves golf can thrive without Tiger

By Ryan LavnerAugust 11, 2014, 8:40 pm

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Can golf survive without Tiger?

The answer has never been more obvious.

The PGA Championship gave us the best major of the year (by a wide margin) and Valhalla Golf Club staged one of the most compelling final rounds ever. The most invigorating part? You Know Who was nowhere to be found.

The week began with cameras fixated on Tiger Woods’ empty parking spot. It ended with Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler and Henrik Stenson – four of the top 13 players in the world – engaged in a wildly entertaining shootout on a vulnerable golf course that left everyone, even the winner, emotionally spent.

The scene at Valhalla was so electric, about the only thing missing was Boo Weekley riding his driver like a quarter horse.

“Of all the ‘grow golf’ initiatives out there,” Ben Crane tweeted, “I think having Phil, Rory and Rickie tied for the lead at a major is the best idea yet.”

Indeed, this PGA Championship was just what the game needed, all of those birdies and roars brightening up the general doom and gloom of this golf year.

A year when the game’s biggest attraction went under the knife (again).

When some in the equipment business reported massive losses and slashed jobs.

When the issues plaguing the game – cost, time, difficulty – lingered with no clear solutions.

PGA Championship full-field scores

PGA Championship: Articles, videos and photos

Sunday, however, was a much-needed reprieve. For four thrilling hours, the best players in the world boomed drives, stuffed iron shots and drained putts, all while chasing daylight. Final-round TV ratings were up 36 percent, the highest in five years for a PGA finale.

“It must have been a great championship to watch,” said Stenson, as he and his comrades saved their best recovery shot for last – rescuing the sport from a theme-less season that was more snore than scream.

Hey, don’t blame Bubba Watson (Masters) and Martin Kaymer (U.S. Open) for the lack of drama. Yes, they encountered little resistance on the final day of their major triumphs, but their level of play in capturing major No. 2 was at an all-time high.    

Plummeting ratings suggested a lack of interest from the casual observer, but hardcore golf fans – the main demographic – likely view 2014 as a swing year. The year the game’s star attraction broke down, and the new king reigned, and the new rival emerged.

All sports undergo a similar evolution at some point, whether the spotlight shifts from Jordan to LeBron, or from Tyson to Mayweather, or from Gretzky to Crosby, or from Sampras to Federer. Some transitions are seamless. Others are done so begrudgingly, with growing pains, like ours.  

In Tiger’s case, of course, the pain has been more literal. Injuries have knocked the former No. 1 off-course, and in the past few months there have been calls – OK, howls – for Woods to change everything from his workout regimen to his swing coach to his physiotherapist. Odd, because few suggestions were made 12 months ago, when he was Player of the Year, the top-ranked player on the planet and a five-time winner. So until he gets healthy, fully healthy, it’s wise to exercise patience.

Whenever Woods returns to competitive relevance – and he will, likely sooner than later – he’ll assume a new role, as a foil to McIlroy’s increasingly legendary career.

Sunday’s victory at the PGA stamped the 25-year-old as not just a global superstar but a potentially transcendent one. In both boat races and battle royales, he dazzled with a stirring combination of power and precision, with a bit of panache for the millennials.

McIlroy is the third-youngest in modern history to reach four major titles. If nothing else, his game-changing victory over Mickelson, a five-time major winner, put an emphatic end to all of the “Who’s Next?” questions. Open your eyes – he’s right here, right now, an intimidating presence in a remarkably compact (5-foot-9) frame.

Though McIlroy may be less polarizing than Woods, though he may play a game that is less violent and dramatic, the end result is no less masterful.

“It’s beginning to look a little Tiger-esque, I suppose,” said Graeme McDowell, who only three weeks earlier had dismissed the notion that a player could dominate in an age of competitive parity.

“I’m not eating my words,” he said, “but I’m certainly starting to chew on them right now. When the kid is playing well, he’s pretty tough to live with.”

Sorry, G-Mac, but the kid will be a legitimate threat for only another, oh, 15 years.

Sunday at Valhalla was proof that with McIlroy at the forefront, the sport cannot just survive with a diminished Woods. It actually has the potential to thrive. 

Getty Images

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.

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

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.

Getty Images

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.

@kharms27 on Instagram

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.

Getty Images

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.”

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

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.