Spieth, McIlroy hope to turn good seasons into great

By Ryan LavnerJuly 26, 2016, 8:42 pm

SPRINGFIELD, N.J. – The PGA of America ditched the Glory’s Last Shot tag line a few years ago, at the PGA Tour’s request, because, it reasoned, important golf is still played deep into the fall. (Hello, FedEx Cup.)

That’s true, of course, but the PGA’s former slogan still underscores the importance of this week for players like Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth, whose outlooks could change dramatically depending on how they fare at Baltusrol.

It’s been a turbulent few months for both superstars, but the numbers suggest they’re far from spiraling toward Armageddon.

McIlroy has a victory and eight top-5s in 15 starts this year.

Spieth has won twice and likely was a solidly struck 9-iron from sliding another green jacket onto his shoulders.

Yet for various reasons, both players enter the year’s final major unfulfilled and unsatisfied.

Asked Tuesday to describe his year in a single word, McIlroy chose "neutral."

“I’m trying to stay as positive as I can,” he added. “I feel like I am positive because my game is in good shape. But I guess I’m just maybe running out of patience a little bit and trying to make it happen.”

His frustration has boiled over at various points over the past few months. In May, he was less-than-enthused about the negative spin regarding his game. In June, he missed the cut at the U.S. Open and blew out of town before speaking with the media. And just two weeks ago at The Open, he slammed his 3-wood and snapped the head after an errant shot.

Surely, he’s desperate to get back to world No. 1, to his winning ways?

“I think you guys are more desperate for it to happen than I am,” McIlroy said at Royal Troon.

Yet in this era of awe-inspiring power players, a year in neutral is oftentimes a year left behind. If McIlroy fails to win the PGA, he’ll have gone two full years without a major. That’s far from an eternity, of course, but it comes at a time when Spieth, Jason Day and Dustin Johnson all have taken significant strides. Fair or not, it appears as if McIlroy is lagging behind, which led an ambitious headline writer for The Telegraph (U.K.) to suggest that the former Boy Wonder was in danger of becoming Ringo.

Is it unrealistic, McIlroy was asked, to expect a world-class golfer in today’s environment – with better equipment, better fitness, better depth and talent – to capture a major title every year?

McIlroy believes it’s possible. And he should – from 2011-14, he averaged a major per year.

PGA Championship: Full-field tee times | Photo gallery

Full coverage from the PGA Championship

“There’s no reason to think that I can’t do that for the foreseeable future,” he said. “Obviously that’s what my benchmark is, and I feel like I can attain that. I have to play my best golf, and sometimes it’s hard to come up with your best golf each and every week. But I definitely think it’s attainable.”

Like McIlroy, Spieth’s toughest challenge this year has been outracing the massive expectations that followed one of the best seasons in recent memory.

Spieth has won twice this year, but history suggested he was due for a market correction after he came up four shots shy of the single-season Grand Slam. Of the 14 players who won two majors in a season, only five returned the next year and added to their Slam total.

Even without his best stuff, Spieth led the Masters by five shots before ultimately coming undone on the back nine. He hasn’t finished inside the top 30 in each of the past two majors, however, only fueling the critics who say he’s mired in a slump.

“I don’t think that I am a better player this year than I was last year,” he said. “I think I’m the same player – I’ve just been getting a bit too frustrated.”

On the course, Spieth has seemed at times both impatient and uncertain, engaging in long, lively chats with caddie Michael Greller in which he overanalyzed each shot and club selection. In hindsight, he said, it served little purpose, other than to drive his pace of play to a screeching halt. In recent weeks, he’s tried to revert back to a “gunslinger” mentality – chose a club, pick a target, pull the trigger – but it could be further proof that his mind is cluttered with unnecessary thoughts.

Spieth has even expressed frustration with some of the negative questions about his game, as if to imply that he’s had a bad year. Though the statistics show that he’s taken a step back with his ball-striking, he’s longer off the tee and more confident in his mid-to-long iron game. And even if he’s not quite as sharp, even if he’s major-less this year, the kid still knows how to get the ball in the hole – his scoring average (69.501) is third-best on Tour.

“I set my own expectations so high,” he said. “So have I met them this year? Not yet. But I still can, based on the goals that we set for the year.”

Which brings us back to the PGA, and to, ahem, Glory’s Last Shot. A FedEx Cup title could pad their already overflowing wallets, and a Ryder Cup victory might bring a sense of collective achievement, but nothing would compare to the satisfaction of capturing another major, of transforming a good year into a great one, of silencing the questions, if only for a few moments.

It’s the only tournament left on their schedules with that singular power.

McIlroy seems to understand the stakes this week at Baltusrol. Grading his season so far, he said it’s either a “B-minus, or a B … but I could change that into an A-plus on Sunday.”

“There’s a lot of golf left, the last major of the year,” he said, “and I want to give it my all to get in the mix and try to win another one of these things before I have to wait another eight months.”

Getty Images

Schauffele just fine being the underdog

By Rex HoggardJuly 21, 2018, 8:06 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Following a breakthough season during which he won twice and collected the PGA Tour Rookie of the Year Award, Xander Schauffele concedes his sophomore campaign has been less than stellar, but that could all change on Sunday at The Open.

Schauffele followed a second-round 66 with a 67 on Saturday to take a share of the 9-under-par lead with Jordan Spieth and Kevin Kisner.

Although he hasn’t won in 2018, he did finish runner-up at The Players and tied for sixth at the U.S. Open, two of the year’s toughest tests.

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“Growing up, I always hit it well and played well in tough conditions,” Schauffele said. “I wasn't the guy to shoot 61. I was the guy to shoot like 70 when it was playing really hard.”

Sunday’s pairing could make things even more challenging when he’ll head out in the day’s final tee time with Spieth, the defending champion. But being the underdog in a pairing, like he was on Saturday alongside Rory McIlroy, is not a problem.

“All the guys I've talked to said, 'Live it up while you can, fly under the radar,'” he said. “Today I played in front of what you call Rory's crowd and guys were just yelling all the time, even while he's trying to putt, and he had to step off a few times. No one was yelling at me while I was putting. So I kind of enjoy just hanging back and relaxing.”

Getty Images

Open odds: Spieth 7/1 to win; Tiger, Rory 14/1

By Golf Channel DigitalJuly 21, 2018, 7:54 pm

Only 18 holes remain in the 147th Open Championship at Carnoustie, and the man tied atop the leaderboard is the same man who captured the claret jug last year at Royal Birkdale.

So it’s little surprise that Jordan Spieth is the odds-on favorite (7/4) to win his fourth major entering Sunday’s final round.

Xander Schauffele and Kevin Kisner, both tied with Spieth at 9 under par, are next in line at 5/1 and 11/2 respectively. Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, both four shots behind the leaders, are listed at 14/1.

Click here for the leaderboard and take a look below at the odds, courtesy Jeff Sherman at golfodds.com.

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

Jordan Spieth: 7/4

Xander Schauffele: 5/1

Kevin Kisner: 11/2

Tiger Woods: 14/1

Francesco Molinari: 14/1

Rory McIlroy: 14/1

Kevin Chappell: 20/1

Tommy Fleetwood: 20/1

Alex Noren: 25/1

Zach Johnson: 30/1

Justin Rose: 30/1

Matt Kuchar: 40/1

Webb Simpson: 50/1

Adam Scott: 80/1

Tony Finau: 80/1

Charley Hoffman: 100/1

Austin Cook: 100/1

Getty Images

Spieth stands on brink of Open repeat

By Rex HoggardJuly 21, 2018, 7:49 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Jordan Spieth described Monday’s “ceremony” to return the claret jug to the keepers of the game’s oldest championship as anything but enjoyable.

For the last 12 months the silver chalice has been a ready reminder of what he was able to overcome and accomplish in 2017 at Royal Birkdale, a beacon of hope during a year that’s been infinitely forgettable.

By comparison, the relative pillow fight this week at Carnoustie has been a welcome distraction, a happy-go-lucky stroll through a wispy field. Unlike last year’s edition, when Spieth traveled from the depths of defeat to the heights of victory within a 30-minute window, the defending champion has made this Open seem stress-free, easy even, by comparison.

But then those who remain at Carnoustie know it’s little more than a temporary sleight of hand.

As carefree as things appeared on Saturday when 13 players, including Spieth, posted rounds of 67 or lower, as tame as Carnoustie, which stands alone as The Open’s undisputed bully, has been through 54 holes there was a foreboding tension among the rank and file as they readied for a final trip around Royal Brown & Bouncy.

“This kind of southeast or east/southeast wind we had is probably the easiest wind this golf course can have, but when it goes off the left side, which I think is forecasted, that's when you start getting more into the wind versus that kind of cross downwind,” said Spieth, who is tied for the lead with Xander Schauffele and Kevin Kisner at 9 under par after a 6-under 65. “It won't be the case tomorrow. It's going to be a meaty start, not to mention, obviously, the last few holes to finish.”

Carnoustie only gives so much and with winds predicted to gust to 25 mph there was a distinct feeling that playtime was over.

As melancholy as Spieth was about giving back the claret jug, and make no mistake, he wasn’t happy, not even his status among the leading contenders with a lap remaining was enough for him to ignore the sleeping giant.

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

But then he’s come by his anxiousness honestly. Spieth has spent far too much time answering questions about an inexplicably balky putter the last few weeks and he hasn’t finished better than 21st since his “show” finish in April at the Masters.

After a refreshingly solid start to his week on Thursday imploded with a double bogey-bogey-par-bogey finish he appeared closer to an early ride home on Friday than he did another victory lap, but he slowly clawed his way back into the conversation as only he can with one clutch putt after the next.

“I'm playing golf for me now. I've kind of got a cleared mind. I've made a lot of progress over the year that's been kind of an off year, a building year,” said Spieth, who is bogey-free over his last 36 holes. “And I've got an opportunity to make it a very memorable one with a round, but it's not necessary for me to prove anything for any reason.”

But if an awakened Carnoustie has Spieth’s attention, the collection of would-be champions assembled around and behind him adds another layer of intrigue.

Kisner, Spieth’s housemate this week on Angus coast, has led or shared the lead after each round this week and hasn’t shown any signs of fading like he did at last year’s PGA Championship, when he started the final round with a one-stroke lead only to close with a 74 to tie for seventh place.

“I haven't played it in that much wind. So I think it's going to be a true test, and we'll get to see really who's hitting it the best and playing the best tomorrow,” said Kisner, who added a 68 to his total on Day 3.

There’s no shortage of potential party crashers, from Justin Rose at 4 under after a round-of-the-week 64 to 2015 champion Zach Johnson, who also made himself at home with Spieth and Kisner in the annual Open frat house and is at 5 under.

Rory McIlroy, who is four years removed from winning his last major championship, looked like a player poised to get off the Grand Slam schneid for much of the day, moving to 7 under with a birdie at the 15th hole, but he played the last three holes in 2 over par and is tied with Johnson at 5 under par. 

And then there’s Tiger Woods. For three magical hours the three-time Open champion played like he’d never drifted into the dark competitive hole that’s defined his last few years. Like he’d never been sidelined by an endless collection of injuries and eventually sought relief under the surgeon’s knife.

As quietly as Woods can do anything, he turned in 3 under par for the day and added two more birdies at Nos. 10 and 11. His birdie putt at the 14th hole lifted him temporarily into a share of the lead at 6 under par.

“We knew there were going to be 10, 12 guys with a chance to win on Sunday, and it's turning out to be that,” said Woods, who is four strokes off the lead. “I didn't want to be too far back if the guys got to 10 [under] today. Five [shots back] is certainly doable, and especially if we get the forecast tomorrow.”

Woods held his round of 66 together with a gritty par save at the 18th hole after hitting what he said was his only clunker of the day off the final tee.

Even that episode seemed like foreshadowing.

The 18th hole has rough, bunkers, out of bounds and a burn named Barry that weaves its way through the hole like a drunken soccer fan. It’s the Grand Slam of hazardous living and appears certain to play a leading role in Sunday’s outcome.

Perhaps none of the leading men will go full Jean Van de Velde, the star-crossed Frenchman who could still be standing in that burn if not for a rising tide back at the 1999 championship, but if the 499 yards of dusty turf is an uninvited guest, it’s a guest nonetheless.

It may not create the same joyless feelings that he had when he returned the claret jug, but given the hole’s history and Spieth’s penchant for late-inning histrionics (see Open Championship, 2017), the 18th hole is certain to produce more than a few uncomfortable moments.

Getty Images

Wandering photographer costs McIlroy on 16

By Ryan LavnerJuly 21, 2018, 7:44 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Rory McIlroy bogeyed two of his last four holes Saturday to fall four shots off the lead at The Open.

One of those mistakes might not have entirely been his fault.

McIlroy missed a short putt on the par-3 16th after a photographer was “in a world all his own,” wandering around near the green, taking photos of the crowd and not paying attention to the action on the green.

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“It’s fine,” McIlroy said after a third-round 70 put him at 5-under 208, four shots off the lead. “It’s one of those things that happens. There’s a lot of people out there, and it is what it is. It’s probably my fault, but I just didn’t regroup well after it happened.”

McIlroy also bogeyed the home hole, after driving into a fairway bunker, sending his second shot right of the green and failing to get up and down.

“I putted well,” he said. “I holed out when I needed to. I just need to make the birdies and try to limit the damage tomorrow.”