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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Winning on Kerr's mind this week and beyond

By Randall MellMarch 24, 2018, 2:11 am

Cristie Kerr moved into position Friday to do more than win the 21st LPGA title of her career.

She moved into position to claim an LPGA Hall of Fame point this week.

Yes, winning is foremost on her mind at the Kia Classic, where she took the lead with an 8-under-par 64 in the second round, she’s on a larger quest, too.

After turning 40 last fall, Kerr was asked what her goals are.

“The Hall of Fame is attainable, if I stick with it,” she said.

Kerr is five shots ahead of Lizette Salas (67), In-Kyung Kim (69), Hee Young Park (70) and Caroline Hedwall (70).

It’s a good time for Kerr to get on a hot streak, with the year’s first major championship, the ANA Inspiration, next week. She has long been one of the best putters in the women’s game, but her ball-striking is impressive this week. She hit 17 greens in regulation Thursday, and she hit 16 on Friday.

“I like winning,” Kerr said. “I like challenging myself. Definitely doesn't get any easier as you get older, with the travel and recovery time. I got up this morning and I'm like, `Man, why does my hamstring hurt?’ From working around this hilly golf course.”

Kerr acknowledged Friday that her body is more vulnerable to time’s realities, but her mind isn’t.

Full-field scores from the Kia Classic

“The golf ball doesn't know an age,” Kerr said. “I've always said that. As long as I stay hungry, going to just keep playing.”

Kerr won two weeks after her 40th birthday last fall, boosting her LPGA Hall of Fame point total to 22. She is five points short of eligibility for induction. A player earns one point for an LPGA victory and two points for a major championship title. So there’s a lot of Hall of Fame ground to gain this week and next.

It’s a long-term goal that motivates Kerr to take care of her body.

“I don't think the golf changes,” Kerr said. “I think, physically, it gets harder as you get older. Like I said, I've got tape on my hamstring. I strained it, just a little bit yesterday, walking around this golf course. It's tough as you get older, just being fresh and rested. I put more focus into that as I've gotten older. I still practice, but off the course I try to get more rest.”

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Big names chasing Kerr into the weekend at Kia Classic

By Associated PressMarch 24, 2018, 1:55 am

CARLSBAD, Calif. - Cristie Kerr shot an 8-under 64 on Friday in the Kia Classic to take a five-stroke lead into the weekend.

The 40-year-old Kerr had eight birdies in her second straight bogey-free round to reach 13-under 131 at rain-softened Aviara.

''I like winning. I like challenging myself,'' Kerr said. ''Definitely doesn't get any easier as you get older with the travel and recovery time. I got up this morning and I'm like, 'Man, why does my hamstring hurt?' From working around this hilly golf course. The golf ball doesn't know an age. I've always said that. As long as I stay hungry, going to just keep playing.''

She has 20 LPGA victories, winning at Aviara in 2015. She won twice last year and helped the U.S. beat Europe in her ninth Solheim Cup appearance.

''It's tough as you get older just being fresh and rested,'' Kerr said. ''I put more focus into that as I've gotten older. I still practice, but off the course I try to get more rest.''

Lizette Salas, In-Kyung Kim, Hee Young Park and Caroline Hedwall were tied for second. Salas shot 67, Kim 69, and Park and Hedwall 70.

''I really like this golf course. I really like the environment,'' said Salas, the former University of Southern California player from Azusa. ''My family gets to come out. So much confidence at the beginning of the week, and definitely showed the first two days.

Jeong Eun Lee was 7 under after a 69, and defending ANA champion So Yeon Ryu had a 70 to get to 6 under.

Full-field scores from the Kia Classic

Ariya Jutanugarn (72), Brooke Henderson (70) and 2016 winner Lydia Ko (71) were 5 under. Shanshan Feng (68) was another stroke back, and Singapore winner Michelle Wie (72) was 1 under.

Lexi Thompson was 2 over after a 74, making the cut on the number in the final event before the major ANA Inspiration next week at Mission Hills.

Kerr opened with birdies on the par-5 10th and par-3 11th, added birdies on the par-4 16th, 18th and second, and ran off three in a row on the par-3 sixth, par-4 seventh and par-5 eighth.

''I don't think you can fall asleep on one shot,'' Kerr said. ''It's a really good golf course. I think I play better on courses that demand the focus, so I think that's why I've played well here in the past. ... I'm trying not to put limits on myself right now. I've got some good things going on with my swing.''

She has long been one best putters and green-readers in the world.

''I can see the subtleties that a lot of people can't,'' Kerr said. ''It's a gift from God being able to do that. I've always had that, so I'm lucky.''

Laura Davies withdrew after an opening 82. The 54-year-old Davies tied for second last week in the Founders Cup in Phoenix, playing through painful left Achilles and calf problems.

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DJ hits 489-yard drive, but it doesn't count for history

By Rex HoggardMarch 24, 2018, 12:22 am

AUSTIN, Texas – Dustin Johnson is no stranger to big drives, but even for DJ this one was impressive.

Trailing in his Day 3 match at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, Johnson launched a drive at the par-5 12th hole that traveled 489 yards, but that number comes with an asterisk.

“He got lucky it hit the road,” smiled Kevin Kisner, who was leading the world No. 1, 3 up, at the time. “I thought he would make an eagle for sure, he only had 80 yards [to the hole]. He didn’t hit a very good putt.”

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Johnson’s drive, which was 139 yards past Kisner’s tee shot, is the longest recorded on the PGA Tour in the ShotLink era, surpassing Davis Love III’s drive of 476 yards in 2004 at the Tournament of Champions.

The drive will not go into the record books, however, because the Tour doesn’t count statistics from the Match Play.

It should also be noted, Kisner halved the 12th hole with a birdie and won the match, 4 and 3, to advance to the round of 16.

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Durant leads Champions event in Mississippi

By Associated PressMarch 24, 2018, 12:21 am

BILOXI, Miss. - Joe Durant had three straight birdies in a back-nine burst and a shot 6-under 66 on Friday to take the first-round lead in the PGA Tour Champions' Rapiscan Systems Classic.

Durant birdied the par-4 11th and 12th and par-5 13th in the bogey-free round at breezy and rain-softened Fallen Oak. Because of the wet conditions, players were allowed to lift, clean and place their golf balls in the fairway.

''It just sets up nice to my eye,'' Durant said. ''It's a beautiful golf course and it's very challenging. The tee shots seem to set up well for me, but the greens are maybe as quick as I've ever seen them here. You really have to put the ball in the right spots. I played very nice today. With the wind swirling like it was, I'm really happy.''

He won the Chubb Classic last month in Naples, Florida, for his third victory on the 50-and-over tour.

Full-field scores from the Rapiscan Systems Classic

''Done this long enough, Friday's just one day,'' Durant said. ''Especially in a three-day tournament, you've got to go out and shoot three good numbers. Fortunate to put one on the board, but I know I have to back it up with a couple of good days because you can get passed very quickly out here.''

Mark Calcavecchia was a stroke back. He won last month in Boca Raton, Florida

''It's probably my best round I've ever had here and it was a tough day to play,'' Calcavecchia said. ''The greens are just lightning fast. They're pretty slopey greens, so very difficult to putt.''

Steve Stricker was third at 68. He took the Tucson, Arizona, event three weeks ago for his first senior victory.

''Just getting it around and managing my game I think like I always do,'' Stricker said. ''You get in the wrong position here with the greens being so fast and you're going to be in trouble. I did that a couple times today.''

Billy Mayfair, Billy Andrade and David McKenzie shot 69. Jerry Kelly, the winner of the season-opening event in Hawaii, was at 70 with Wes Short Jr., Glen Day, Gene Sauers and Jesper Parnevik.

Bernhard Langer opened with a 71, and two-time defending champion Miguel Angel Jimenez had a 72.

Vijay Singh, coming off his first senior victory two weeks ago in Newport Beach, California, had a 73.