Players must learn to love links golf ... even if it hurts

By Ryan LavnerJuly 15, 2014, 4:50 pm

HOYLAKE, England – Phil Mickelson had barely put lips to silver when he declared that his 2013 Open title was the greatest accomplishment of his career.

Green jackets look fabulous in a walk-in closet. A Wanamaker Trophy makes for a nice dining-room accessory. But for Mickelson, at least, the claret jug represented something different. After years of futility, after years of revamping his links game, he finally viewed himself as a complete player.

“This,” he said afterward, “has been the biggest challenge for me to overcome and capture this championship, this trophy.”

Mickelson’s first links experience came at the 1991 Walker Cup at Portmarnock. Sure, he played well, and he enjoyed the uniqueness of playing the ball on the ground, but the allure began to wear off after all of the bad bounces and the high scores and the unpredictable conditions.

Besides, for the other 51 weeks of the year, Mickelson could play the way he was most comfortable – rearing back, teeing it high, letting it fly.

Generally speaking, the PGA Tour follows the sun, and the host sites are birdie-fests with light rough and receptive greens. Distance is rewarded. A high ball flight is preferred, occasionally required. And the player who putts the best on a given week is almost always in contention.

Video: Bubba's thoughts on Royal Liverpool and links golf

“But what works 51 weeks of the year doesn’t always work here,” said Justin Rose, and so players are left scrambling to reinvent their games for golf’s most drastic test.  

Mickelson cracked the code in his 18th attempt, and he’s far from the only elite player to develop a love-hate relationship with the Open.  

Rory McIlroy’s up-and-down T-3 in 2010 remains his only top 20.

Rose, a co-favorite this week along with McIlroy, has just one career top-10 – and that was back in 1998, as a 17-year-old amateur.

Masters champion Bubba Watson, arguably the most creative player in today’s game, doesn’t have a top-20. World No. 6 Jason Day doesn’t have a top-30.

Matt Kuchar, Mr. Consistency, has a single top-10 – the same number as major winners Martin Kaymer (six appearances) and Graeme McDowell (10).

Growing up, Rose played links courses almost exclusively in junior and amateur events. He grew accustomed to it. He came to enjoy it. Memories of his Friday 66 in brutal conditions at Birkdale still bring a smile to his face. Over time, though, his game evolved to play in the States, and for that he’s been richly rewarded, capturing the U.S. Open a year ago and rising to No. 3 in the Official World Golf Ranking.

But, he said, “Sometimes as a pro we do soften. We play in such great conditions most of the time, and when you do get that really nasty day, you’re not as prepared or as ready for it as maybe an amateur would be. …

“I’ve had to just relearn a few of my old (links golf) tricks, I suppose. I don’t think you ever lose it; you just have to go and remember and get a few more rounds in, or get your eye in.”

Yes, there are a few tricks to learn. How to take off spin. How to play in a crosswind. How to escape the cavernous pot bunkers. But as much as anything, links golf is a mindset.

“You’ve got to relish the challenge,” McIlroy said last week at the Scottish Open, where his meeting with the media seemed more therapy session than news conference.

“It’s not like I haven’t played well on links courses before and in links conditions. It’s just getting back to that. Back when I was 15, 16, 17, playing links golf all the time, it wasn’t anything to put your wet gear on and play. Now, we’re so spoiled playing in great conditions.”

That’s a significant reason why McIlroy and Rose, last week’s winner, added the Scottish Open to their schedules. Royal Aberdeen offered both a proper links test – something that couldn’t be replicated on the range or at their home club – and an opportunity to play in meaningful conditions.    

Adam Scott opted for a different route. The world No. 1 has been at Hoylake since last Thursday, logging 120 holes as he reacquainted himself with a track he hadn’t seen in eight years. Each year at this time he’s reminded of how different the two games are – the one he plays on a week-to-week basis, and the unique challenge of links golf. Here, a 2-iron might roll out to 330 yards, and on the next hole, into a stiff wind, a 4-iron goes about 150.

“To get your head around that is really tough,” he said. “A lot of it is feel, and you need a bit of time and you need to play to do that. You won’t find that on the range because you’re not really paying attention to how far the ball is going. You’re looking at how straight it’s going. It’s a big adjustment.”

Said Watson, “The sad thing is that it’s one week out of the year. I’m coming over here trying to learn the game real fast or learn the style of golf real fast. So far it hasn’t worked out well for me.”

Meanwhile, another Watson – Tom – has enjoyed far greater success at the Open. He has hoisted the claret jug five times and, in 2009, at age 59, came within 8 feet of authoring one of the greatest sports stories ever. Watson recalled this week that he didn’t enjoy links courses until a trip with Sandy Tatum. They played several of the classics the week before the 1981 Open – Ballybunion and Royal Dornoch and Royal Troon and Prestwick. By that time Watson had already captured three Open titles, including the famous “Duel in the Sun” with Jack Nicklaus in 1977, but he still didn’t like the fact that there were blind shots, that the course wasn’t right there in front of him.

Finally, on that trip, he surrendered. “I decided to stop fighting them and join them,” he said.

Mickelson had a similarly enlightening moment in December 2003, when his work with short-game guru Dave Pelz finally clicked.

A decade later, he captured the Open with a round-of-his-life 66 on Sunday. He described the moment afterward as “as fulfilling a career accomplishment as I could ever imagine.”

Because after mastering links golf, if only for a week, he finally viewed himself as a complete player. 

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Watch: Pieters snaps club ... around his neck

By Golf Channel DigitalMay 25, 2018, 1:19 pm

After opening in 3-over 75, Thomas Pieters was in no mood for more poor play on Friday.

Unfortunately for Pieters, he bogeyed two of his first three holes in the second round of the BMW PGA Championship and then didn't like his second shot at the par-5 fourth.

Someone - or some thing - had to pay, and an innocent iron bore the brunt of Pieters' anger.

Pieters made par on the hole, but at 5 over for the tournament, he was five shots off the cut line.

It's not the first time a club has faced Pieters' wrath. 

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Woods would 'love' to see Tour allow shorts

By Golf Channel DigitalMay 25, 2018, 12:59 pm

Players on the European Tour are allowed to wear shorts during practices and pro-ams.

The PGA of America permitted players to show some leg while prepping for last year’s PGA Championship.

Tiger Woods would like to see the PGA Tour follow suit.

"I would love it," he said Thursday in a Facebook Live with Bridgestone Golf. "We play in some of the hottest climates on the planet. We usually travel with the sun, and a lot of our events are played in the summer, and then on top of that when we have the winter months here a lot of the guys go down to South Africa and Australia where it's summer down there.

"It would be nice to wear shorts. Even with my little chicken legs, I still would like to wear shorts."

Caddies are currently allowed to wear shorts on Tour, during events.

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Feasting again: McIlroy shoots 65 to lead BMW PGA

By Golf Channel DigitalMay 25, 2018, 12:04 pm

Updated at 9:42 a.m. ET

Rory McIlroy made seven birdies and no bogeys on Friday for a 7-under 65 and the second-round lead at the BMW PGA Championship.

After opening in 67, McIlroy was among the early groups out on Day 2 at Wentworth Club. He made three birdies and no bogeys on the par-35 front nine on Friday, and then went on a run after the turn.

McIlroy made four consecutive birdies, beginning at the par-5 12th. That got him to 12 under, overall, and gave him a clear advantage over the field. With two closing par-5s, a very low number was in sight. But, as he did on Day 1, McIlroy finished par-par.

"I've made four pars there [on 17 and 18] when I really should be making at least two birdies, but I played the other par-5s well," McIlroy said. "It all balances itself out."

Full-field scores from the BMW PGA Championship

McIlroy has made 14 birdies and two bogeys through two rounds. At 12 under, he has a three-stroke lead over Sam Horsfield.

"The work has paid off, to some degree," McIlroy said of his practice with swing coach Michael Bannon. "I still feel like I'm hitting some loose shots out there. But, for the most part, it's been really good. If I can keep these swing thoughts and keep going in the right direction, hopefully this is the type of golf I'll be able to produce."

This event has been feast or famine for McIlroy. He won here in 2014, but has three missed cuts in his other three starts. This week, however, he’ll be around for the weekend and is in position for his first European Tour victory since the 2016 Irish Open and his second worldwide victory of the year (Arnold Palmer Invitational).

"I have the confidence that I'm playing well and I can go out and try to just replicate what I did the day before," McIlroy said about his weekend approach with the lead. "On the first tee box tomorrow I'll be thinking about what I did today. Trying to just keep the same thoughts, make the same swings. I went a couple better today than I did yesterday. I'm not sure I'll keep that progression going but something similiar tomorrow would be nice."

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Goat visor propels Na to Colonial lead

By Will GrayMay 25, 2018, 1:29 am

Jason Dufner officially has some company in the headwear free agency wing of the PGA Tour.

Like Dufner, Kevin Na is now open to wear whatever he wants on his head at tournaments, as his visor sponsorship with Titleist ended earlier this month. He finished T-6 at the AT&T Byron Nelson in his second tournament as a free agent, and this week at the Fort Worth Invitational he's once again wearing a simple white visor with a picture of a goat.

"I bought it at The Players Championship for $22 with the 30 percent discount that they give the Tour players," Na told reporters. "It's very nice."

Full-field scores from the Fort Worth Invitational

Fort Worth Invitational: Articles, photos and videos

Perhaps a change in headwear was just what Na needed to jumpstart his game. Last week's result in Dallas was his first top-35 finish in his last six events dating back to February, and he built upon that momentum with an 8-under 62 to take a one-shot lead over Charley Hoffman after the first round at Colonial Country Club.

While many sports fans know the "GOAT" acronym to stand for "Greatest Of All Time," it's a definition that the veteran Na only learned about earlier this year.

"I do social media, but they kept calling Tiger the GOAT. I go, 'Man, why do they keep calling Tiger the GOAT? That's just mean,'" Na said. "Then I realized it meant greatest of all time. Thinking of getting it signed by Jack (Nicklaus) next week (at the Memorial)."