Plenty at stake in BMW Championship

By Ryan LavnerSeptember 16, 2015, 9:15 pm

LAKE FOREST, Ill. – It’s all about the top five.

Players have been saying it for months: As long as they’re inside the top five in the FedEx Cup standings entering the Tour Championship, they can – all together now – control their own destiny and have a clear shot at the $10 million bonus. 

So what’s the incentive for some of the PGA Tour’s biggest stars this week?

Jason Day and Jordan Spieth are already assured of being in the top five next week at East Lake, no matter what happens here at Conway Farms. The third member of that featured group, Rickie Fowler, is virtually guaranteed to stay there too, barring an upside-down week at the BMW.

There is still plenty to play for, of course. The 70-man BMW still counts as an official PGA Tour victory. It still features a full purse, with $1.48 million to the winner. And it still offers plenty of world ranking points, which is good news for Day and Spieth, who are vying for Rory McIlroy’s top spot. But there is no denying that their work weeks don’t quite have that win-or-go-home intensity.

“As far as the final tally of the FedEx Cup, it’s not going to make much of a difference if I win this week or finish 70th because it’ll be re-paired and I’ll be in the top five; you control your own destiny,” Spieth said. “When you think about the FedEx Cup picture, it doesn’t make that much of a difference.”

Or does it?

BMW Championship: Articles, photos and videos

We know this much: If any of the top five players in the standings win next week at the Tour Championship, then they take home the FedEx Cup and the biggest cash prize in golf.

We know this, too: With the points reset before the final event – the top seed starts at 2,000 points, second place at 1,800 and third at 1,600, etc. – the top players can still win the FedEx Cup even without a win at East Lake … though it’s worth noting that the winner of the Tour Championship has gone on to take the FedEx Cup every year since the system was revamped in 2010. At the end of the day, it still comes down to how a player performs at crunch time.

Nine years into the FedEx Cup era, and players still don’t fully grasp all of the probabilities and permutations. It’s complicated math, but it’s a mistake to assume that there is no difference between who is first and fifth heading into East Lake.

In fact, from a probability standpoint, the No. 1 overall seed has a nearly 29 percent chance to win the FedEx Cup, opposed to just 11 and 8 percent, respectively, for Nos. 2 and 3.

Or how about this: The No. 1 player in the standings can still win the FedEx Cup if he finishes 29th in the 30-man field at the Tour Championship. The No. 2 guy needs to be among the top six to have a chance to win the Cup. The odds for the No. 5 man are even worse – he must finish no worse than second.

Your head spinning yet?

“The higher, the better,” Fowler said of his mindset.

So the BMW, then, actually features three intriguing storylines: the race to get inside the top 30, which gives everybody a shot at the big prize; the race for the top five, which guarantees a FedEx Cup title with a win next week; and then the race for position inside the top five, which isn’t sexy, not at all, but it is important, for each slot offers better odds.

Said 2014 FedEx Cup champion Billy Horschel: “It’s an event that we all need to play well in, whether you’re already in East Lake or trying to get there.”

No-cut events always have a laid-back vibe – especially this time of year – but there’s plenty at stake this week.

Leading the race is Day, who is playing the best golf of his career and has another chance to realize a lifelong goal of reaching world No. 1. It would require a furious finish – and probably two consecutive wins – but there’s still a chance that he could steal some Player of the Year votes if he were to win the FedEx Cup.

“I know that I just have to suck it up for the next two weeks and go out and play as hard as I can,” he said. “I’ve got no excuses. I need to go out and play good. That’s the only thing that I have to focus on right now.”

After missing consecutive cuts in these playoffs, Spieth is relieved that he will at least accrue some points this week. He says he isn’t dealing with a major hangover and simply had four bad rounds. He’ll approach the Tour Championship as if it were a major, and these next two events present an opportunity to end his historic season with the exclamation point that it deserves.

Because of the points reset, and because he’s already assured of one of the five prized spots, Spieth says that it’s a “free-rolling scenario” and that he will play more aggressively to get his game in gear for East Lake.

“It makes you feel like you may as well go for broke here,” he said, “and play some shots under pressure that are more dangerous so that you can almost have it ready for next week.”

Those two are safe. Everyone else is trying to peak at the right time to cash in.

Every player currently inside the top 29 could move into the top five with a win this week – a group that includes Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy.

And players who survive the 70-to-30 cut are exempt into all four majors next year, which is a big deal for guys like Daniel Summerhays (No. 26), Jason Bohn (28) and rookie Justin Thomas (35), who have combined for 11 Grand Slam appearances since 2010.

Hey, if we’ve learned anything over these past nine years, it’s this: At the big-money free-for-all, every spot matters.

Getty Images

Stunner: Inbee Park steps aside for Int. Crown

By Randall MellJuly 17, 2018, 4:00 pm

There was a big surprise this week when the LPGA announced the finalized lineups for the UL International Crown.

Rolex world No. 1 Inbee Park won’t be teeing it up for the host South Koreans Oct. 4-7 in Incheon.

She has withdrawn, saying she wanted another Korean to be able to experience the thrill of representing her country.

It’s a stunner given the importance the LPGA has placed on taking the UL International Crown to South Korea and its golf-crazy allegiance to the women’s game in the Crown’s first staging outside the United States.

Two-time major champion In Gee Chun will replace Park.

"It was my pleasure and honor to participate in the first UL International Crown in 2014 and at the 2016 Olympics, and I cannot describe in one word how amazing the atmosphere was to compete as a representative of my country,” Park said. “There are so many gifted and talented players in Korea, and I thought it would be great if one of the other players was given the chance to experience the 2018 UL International Crown.”

Chun, another immensely popular player in South Korea, was the third alternate, so to speak, with the world rankings used to field teams. Hye Jin Choi and Jin Young Ko were higher ranked than Chun but passed because of commitments made to competing in a Korean LPGA major that week. The other South Koreans who previously qualified are So Yeon Ryu, Sung Hyun Park and I.K. Kim.

Getty Images

Na: I can admit, 'I went through the yips'

By Rex HoggardJuly 17, 2018, 3:35 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Following his victory two weeks ago at A Military Tribute at the Greenbrier, Kevin Na said his second triumph on the PGA Tour was the most rewarding of his career.

Although he declined to go into details as to why the victory was so gratifying at The Greenbrier, as he completed his practice round on Tuesday at the Open Championship, Na shed some light on how difficult the last few years have been.

“I went through the yips. The whole world saw that. I told people, 'I can’t take the club back,'” Na said on Tuesday at Carnoustie. “People talked about it, 'He’s a slow player. Look at his routine.' I was admitting to the yips. I didn’t use the word ‘yip’ at the time. Nobody wants to use that word, but I’m over it now so I can use it. The whole world saw it.”

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

Na, who made headlines for his struggles to begin his backswing when he found himself in the lead at the 2012 Players Championship, said he asked other players who had gone through similar bouts with the game’s most dreaded ailment how they were able to get through it.

“It took time,” he said. “I forced myself a lot. I tried breathing. I tried a trigger. Some guys will have a forward press or the kick of the right knee. That was hard and the crap I got for it was not easy.”

The payoff, however, has steadily arrived this season. Na said he’d been confident with his game this season following a runner-up showing at the Genesis Open and a fourth-place finish at the Fort Worth Invitational, and he felt he was close to a breakthrough. But being able to finish a tournament like he did at The Greenbrier, where he won by five strokes, was particularly rewarding.

“All good now,” he smiled. “I knew I was good enough to win again, but until you do it sometimes you question yourself. It’s just the honest truth.”

Getty Images

Koepka still has chip on his chiseled shoulder

By Ryan LavnerJuly 17, 2018, 3:06 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Brooks Koepka prepared more for this Open than last year's.

He picked up his clubs three times.

That’s three more than last summer, when the only shots he hit between the summer Opens was during a commercial shoot for Michelob Ultra at TPC Sawgrass. He still tied for sixth at The Open a month later.

This time, Koepka kept his commitment to play the Travelers, then hit balls three times between the final round in Hartford and this past Sunday, when he first arrived here at Carnoustie.

Not that he was concerned, of course.

Koepka’s been playing golf for nearly 20 years. He wasn’t about to forget to how to swing a club after a few weeks off.

“It was pretty much the same thing,” he said Tuesday, during his pre-tournament news conference. “I shared it with one of my best friends, my family, and it was pretty much the same routine. It was fun. We enjoyed it. But I’m excited to get back inside the ropes and start playing again. I think you need to enjoy it any time you win and really embrace it and think about what you’ve done.”

At Shinnecock Hills, Koepka became the first player in nearly 30 years to repeat as U.S. Open champion – a major title that helped him shed his undeserved reputation as just another 20-something talent who relies solely on his awesome power. In fact, he takes immense pride in his improved short game and putting inside 8 feet.

“I can take advantage of long golf courses,” he said, “but I enjoy plotting my way around probably - more than the bombers’ golf courses - where you’ve got to think, be cautious sometimes, and fire at the center of the greens. You’ve got to be very disciplined, and that’s the kind of golf I enjoy.”

Which is why Koepka once again fancies his chances here on the type of links that helped launch his career.

Koepka was out of options domestically after he failed to reach the final stage of Q-School in 2012. So he packed his bags and headed overseas, going on a tear on the European Challenge Tour (Europe’s equivalent of the circuit) and earning four titles, including one here in Scotland. That experience was the most fun and beneficial part of his career, when he learned to win, be self-sufficient and play in different conditions.

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“There’s certain steps, and I embraced it,” Koepka said. “I think that’s where a lot of guys go wrong. You are where you are, and you have to make the best of it instead of just putting your head down and being like, 'Well, I should be on the PGA Tour.' Well, guess what? You’re not. So you’ve got to suck it up wherever you are, make the best of it, and keep plugging away and trying to win everything you can because, eventually, if you’re good enough, you will get out here.”

Koepka has proved that he’s plenty good enough, of course: He’s a combined 20 under in the majors since the beginning of 2017, the best of any player during that span. But he still searches long and hard for a chip to put on his chiseled shoulder.

In his presser after winning at Shinnecock, Koepka said that he sometimes feels disrespected and forgotten, at least compared to his more-ballyhooed peers. It didn’t necessarily bother him – he prefers to stay out of the spotlight anyway, eschewing a media tour after each of his Open titles – but it clearly tweaked him enough for him to admit it publicly.

That feeling didn’t subside after he went back to back at the Open, either. On U.S. Open Sunday, ESPN’s Instagram page didn’t showcase a victorious Koepka, but rather a video of New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. dunking a basketball.

“He’s like 6-foot-2. He’s got hops – we all know that – and he’s got hands. So what’s impressive about that?” Koepka said. “But I always try to find something where I feel like I’m the underdog and put that little chip on my shoulder. Even if you’re No. 1, you’ve got to find a way to keep going and keep that little chip on.

“I think I’ve done a good job of that. I need to continue doing that, because once you’re satisfied, you’re only going to go downhill. You try to find something to get better and better, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Now 28, Koepka has a goal of how many majors he’d like to win before his career is over, but he wasn’t about to share it.

Still, he was adamant about one thing: “Right now I’m focused on winning. That’s the only thing I’ve got in my mind. Second place just isn’t good enough. I finished second a lot, and I’m just tired of it. Once you win, it kind of propels you. You have this mindset where you just want to keep winning. It breeds confidence, but you want to have that feeling of gratification: I finally did this. How cool is this?”

So cool that Koepka can’t wait to win another one.

Getty Images

Despite results, Thomas loves links golf

By Jay CoffinJuly 17, 2018, 2:48 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Despite poor results in two previous Open Championships, Justin Thomas contends that he has what it takes to be a good links player. In fact, he believes that he is a good links player.

Two years ago at Royal Troon, Thomas shot 77 in the second round to tie for 53rd place. He was on the wrong side of the draw that week that essentially eliminated anyone from contention who played late Friday afternoon.

Last year at Royal Birkdale, Thomas made a quintuple-bogey 9 on the par-4 sixth hole in the second round and missed the cut by two shots.

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“I feel like I’ve played more than two Opens, but I haven’t had any success here,” Thomas said Tuesday at Carnoustie. “I feel like I am a good links player, although I don’t really have the results to show.”

Although he didn’t mention it as a reason for success this week, Thomas is a much different player now than he was two years ago, having ascended to the No. 1 position in the world for a few weeks and now resting comfortably in the second spot.

He also believes a high golf IQ, and the ability to shape different shots into and with the wind are something that will help him in The Open over the next 20 years.

“I truly enjoy the creativity,” Thomas said. “It presents a lot of different strategies, how you want to play it, if you want to be aggressive, if you want to be conservative, if you want to attack some holes, wait on certain winds, whatever it might be. It definitely causes you to think.

“With it being as firm as it is, it definitely adds a whole other variable to it.”