Open start shows Spieth not just a great putter

By Ryan LavnerJuly 20, 2017, 4:47 pm

SOUTHPORT, England – Chomping away on a stale piece of gum, Jordan Spieth could have been excused for swallowing it whole as he sized up his nasty lie on the downslope of a bunker on the 16th hole.

Spieth laid open the face of his lob wedge and swung hard, splashing out to 15 feet. Just like the ol’ days, he coolly rolled in the putt to keep his bogey-free round alive and finish at 5-under 65, in a tie for the early lead with U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka and Matt Kuchar.

“It was the best shot of the day,” Spieth said, “no doubt about it.”

And it was the only time all day that he stressed for par.    

Though the remaining of his career will always be compared to what he accomplished in 2015, there are parts of Spieth’s game that – gulp – have never been better.

More dedicated in the gym and the kitchen, he and swing coach Cameron McCormick have been able to work around Spieth’s fitter body and tighten up his misses. As a result, he is ranked first in strokes gained-approach the green, third in proximity to the hole and fifth in greens in regulation. Put simply, he’s been the best iron player on Tour this season, leading to two wins (and likely a few more).

This might be difficult for some to wrap their minds around. For whatever reason, Spieth is the player fans love to knock. If there’s been one constant (and unfair) criticism throughout his career, it’s that he’s nothing more than an average ball-striker and sublime putter. That he can’t keep up with the likes of DJ and Rory and Hideki. That he can’t – and won’t – make those birdie bombs forever, and then he’ll struggle.

Those assumptions have been obliterated this year.

“I’ve struck the ball better than I did in ’15,” he said of his epic season in which, at age 22, he won two majors and came within four shots of winning the others.

“I’ve actually been in better position. If you took hole by hole, I’ve been in a better position tee to green than I was that year. If I putted the same as ’15, I’d be having a better year right now.”

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Fortunately for Spieth, iron play is the most important aspect this week at Royal Birkdale. Most players are approaching this famed links cautiously, with irons and 3-woods off the tee to avoid the numerous cross bunkers. And so, with nearly everyone in the 156-man field playing from the same positions, Spieth enjoys a massive advantage.

That was clear Thursday at The Open, when he putted for birdie on all but two holes and, on the rare occasions he missed the green, such as the 16th, he was able to rely on his world-class short game and defrosting putter. And it might be even more apparent Friday, when the wind is expected to howl and ball control will be at a premium.

“You need to have confidence in each ball flight and trajectory,” Spieth said, “because you have to hit them all in a tournament like this.”  

McCormick deserves an assist for Spieth’s 65. On Thursday morning, he brought out a TrackMan for the first time before a tournament round. The coach wanted to see how the ball was reacting in 55-degree weather compared to hot, humid Dallas, and the answer was Spieth was flying his irons about 25 yards shorter into the wind.

With that knowledge, his distance control was impeccable for much of the day.

“I was just trying to keep up with him,” said Henrik Stenson, who shot 69. “He was putting beautifully. I played with him in 2015 when he won his green jacket, and he was rolling it superbly that week, and I don’t think it was that far behind today. He made a lot of good putts out there.”

Which is true … because Spieth was in the proper position to attack. The quality of his iron play still gets overlooked.

Spieth missed a 6-footer on the last that would have pushed him one clear, at 6 under, and walking up the hill behind the 18th green he clapped his hands in frustration. It was one of a few makeable putts that could have elevated this round from “a 9 across the board” to one of the best he’s ever played. Those near-misses have been a familiar refrain for Spieth, who is 36th in putting this season – his worst ranking since his rookie year, but no reason to sound the alarms, either.

“It’s been the one thing that’s been off this year,” he said. “My ball-striking has been better than in any year that I’ve ever played golf. It’s been about capitalizing, which is frustrating, considering I’m used to seeing the ball go in.”

But now Spieth doesn’t need to be a lights-out putter to win. He doesn’t need to drain 33 percent of his 25-footers. He doesn’t need to mask the other deficiencies in his game.

All around, he’s a better player – and that’s a terrifying thought for the rest of the field.

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Berger more than ready to rebound at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:54 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Daniel Berger hopes that this year he gets to be on the other end of a viral moment at the Travelers Championship.

Berger was a hard-luck runner-up last year at TPC River Highlands, a spectator as Jordan Spieth holed a bunker shot to defeat him in a playoff. It was the second straight year that the 25-year-old came up just short outside Hartford, as he carried a three-shot lead into the 2016 event before fading to a tie for fifth.

While he wasn’t lacking any motivation after last year’s close call, Berger got another dose last week at the U.S. Open when he joined Tony Finau as a surprise participant in the final group Sunday, only to shoot a 73 and drift to a T-6 finish.

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“It was one of the best experiences of my professional golf career so far. I feel like I’m going to be in such a better place next time I’m in that position, having felt those emotions and kind of gone through it,” Berger said. “There was a lot of reflection after that because I felt like I played good enough to get it done Sunday. I didn’t make as many putts as I wanted to, but I hit a lot of really good putts. And that’s really all you can do.”

Berger missed the cut earlier this month to end his quest for three straight titles in Memphis, but his otherwise consistent season has now included six top-20 finishes since January. After working his way into contention last week and still with a score to settle at TPC River Highlands, he’s eager to get back to work against another star-studded field.

“I think all these experiences you just learn from,” Berger said. “I think last week, having learned from that, I think that’s even going to make me a little better this week. So I’m excited to get going.”

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Rory tired of the near-misses, determined to close

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:46 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Rory McIlroy has returned to the Travelers Championship with an eye on bumping up his winning percentage.

McIlroy stormed from the back of the pack to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, but that remains his lone worldwide win since the 2016 Tour Championship. It speaks to McIlroy’s considerable ability and lofty expectations that, even with a number of other high finishes this season, he is left unsatisfied.

“I feel like I’ve had five realistic chances to win this year, and I’ve been able to close out one of them. That’s a bit disappointing, I guess,” McIlroy said. “But at least I’ve given myself five chances to win golf tournaments, which is much more than I did last year.”

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The most memorable of McIlroy’s near-misses is likely the Masters, when he played alongside Patrick Reed in Sunday’s final group but struggled en route to a T-5 finish. But more frustrating in the Ulsterman’s eyes were his runner-up at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, when he led by two shots with eight holes to go, and a second-place showing behind Francesco Molinari at the BMW PGA Championship in May.

“There’s been some good golf in there,” he said. “I feel like I let Dubai and Wentworth get away a little bit.”

He’ll have a chance to rectify that trend this week at TPC River Highlands, where he finished T-17 last year in his tournament debut and liked the course and the tournament enough to keep it on his schedule. It comes on the heels of a missed cut at the U.S. Open, when he was 10 over through 11 holes and never got on track. McIlroy views that result as more of an aberration during a season in which he has had plenty of chances to contend on the weekend.

“I didn’t necessarily play that badly last week. I feel like if I play similarly this week, I might have a good chance to win,” McIlroy said. “I think when you play in conditions like that, it magnifies parts of your game that maybe don’t stack up quite as good as the rest of your game, and it magnified a couple of things for me that I worked on over the weekend.”

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Sunday run at Shinnecock gave Reed even more confidence

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:08 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While many big names are just coming around to the notion that the Travelers Championship is worth adding to the schedule, Patrick Reed has been making TPC River Highlands one of his favorite haunts for years.

Reed will make his seventh straight appearance outside Hartford, where he tied for fifth last year and was T-11 the year before that. He is eager to get back to the grind after a stressful week at the U.S. Open, both because of his past success here and because it will offer him a chance to build on a near-miss at Shinnecock Hills.

Reed started the final round three shots off the lead, but he quickly stormed toward the top of the leaderboard and became one of Brooks Koepka’s chief threats after birdies on five of his first seven holes. Reed couldn’t maintain the momentum in the middle of the round, carding three subsequent bogeys, and ultimately tied for fourth.

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It was a bittersweet result, but Reed is focusing on the positives after taking a couple days to reflect.

“If you would have told me that I had a chance to win coming down Sunday, I would have been pleased,” Reed said. “I felt like I just made too many careless mistakes towards the end, and because of that, you’re not going to win at any major making careless mistakes, especially on Sunday.”

Reed broke through for his first major title at the Masters, and he has now finished fourth or better in three straight majors dating back to a runner-up at the PGA last summer. With another chance to add to that record next month in Scotland, he hopes to carry the energy from last week’s close call into this week’s event on a course where he feels right at home.

“It just gives me confidence, more than anything,” Reed said. “Of course I would have loved to have closed it out and win, but it was a great week all in all, and there’s a lot of stuff I can take from it moving forward. That’s how I’m looking at it.”

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Koepka back to work, looking to add to trophy collection

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 8:53 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Days after ensuring the U.S. Open trophy remained in his possession for another year, Brooks Koepka went back to work.

Koepka flew home to Florida after successfully defending his title at Shinnecock Hills, celebrating the victory Monday night with Dustin Johnson, Paulina Gretzky, swing coach Claude Harmon III and a handful of close friends. But he didn’t fully unwind because of a decision to honor his commitment to the Travelers Championship, becoming the first player to tee it up the week after a U.S. Open win since Justin Rose in 2013.

Koepka withdrew from the Travelers pro-am, but he flew north to Connecticut on Wednesday and arrived to TPC River Highlands around 3 p.m., quickly heading to the driving range to get in a light practice session.

“It still hasn’t sunk in, to be honest with you,” Koepka said. “I’m still focused on this week. It was just like, ‘All right, if I can get through this week, then I’m going to be hanging with my buddies next week.’ I know then maybe it’ll sink in, and I’ll get to reflect on it a little bit more.”

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Koepka’s plans next week with friends in Boston meant this week’s event outside Hartford made logistical sense. But he was also motivated to play this week because, plainly, he hasn’t had that many playing opportunities this year after missing nearly four months with a wrist injury.

“I’ve had so many months at home being on the couch. I don’t need to spend any more time on the couch,” Koepka said. “As far as skipping, it never crossed my mind.”

Koepka’s legacy was undoubtedly bolstered by his win at Shinnecock, as he became the first player in nearly 30 years to successfully defend a U.S. Open title. But he has only one other PGA Tour win to his credit, that being the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open, and his goal for the rest of the season is to make 2018 his first year with multiple trophies on the mantle.

“If you’re out here for more than probably 15 events, it gives you a little better chance to win a couple times. Being on the sidelines isn’t fun,” Koepka said. “Keep doing what we’re doing and just try to win multiple times every year. I feel like I have the talent. I just never did it for whatever reason. Always felt like we ran into a buzzsaw. So just keep plugging away.”