A vintage performance by Walker

By Ryan LavnerAugust 1, 2016, 2:32 am

SPRINGFIELD, N.J. – It’s time to uncork that bottle.

At his home in Las Vegas, Butch Harmon has stashed away in his wine cellar a $1,200 Chateau Margaux. It was a gift from Jimmy Walker.

Harmon had refused to accept any payment for their first few lessons, in 2013, so Walker gave him the 16-year-old bottle as a thank-you present. The legendary swing coach never opened it. He wanted to wait until the day Walker won a major.

“I’ve been saving it for a special occasion,” Harmon said late Sunday at Baltusrol, “and this is a special occasion.”

Then he turned around and nodded at Walker, who was posing for pictures with the Wanamaker Trophy.

“I’m gonna take it to Texas,” Harmon said, “and pour it in that big old cup over there.”

A drab, marathon final day at the PGA Championship came to life in the final 15 minutes. What had been a comfortable three-shot cushion as Walker strode down the 18th fairway was reduced to a one-stroke margin when world No. 1 Jason Day poured in a 15-foot eagle putt on the last.

The tension was ratcheted up even more once Walker dumped his approach into the worst possible spot: a gnarly lie right of the green, short-sided, about 8 feet below the surface of the green. Needing only a par on his 36th hole of the day, he chopped out well past the flag and coolly two-putted for victory.

That Walker, 37, captured a major wasn’t the surprise here – as recently as last April, he was a top-10 player in the world, with five wins in an 18-month span. It was the timing of his breakthrough.

By almost any measure, the past year has been a struggle. His long game suffered. His putter cooled off. And his psyche took a beating.

“He lost faith in himself this year,” Harmon said. “Things weren’t working right and that’s how it goes sometimes. This is a hard league you’re in. I just had to do some work to get his head back in the game.”

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After all, that missing piece was one of the main reasons Harmon was so intrigued by Walker back in 2013. At 26, Walker was the Web.com Tour Player of the Year, but his career was derailed by a neck injury. When he finally made it to the big leagues, he went winless in his first 187 starts.

“There were some mechanical changes we had to make,” Harmon said, “but those were pretty easy. I had to make him believe how good he was. He wasn’t sure that he was as good as I thought he could be and I told him that. He went out and proved it.”

As is often the case with Harmon, the fix to Walker’s game was simple. After a missed cut at The Open, Walker moved closer to the ball and tried to maintain the flex in his right knee.

“For the last three weeks, I’ve been saying, ‘He’s trending,’” said Walker’s caddie, Andy Sanders. “We’ve been building, making progress, moving up, getting better.” 

In practice-round matches here at Baltusrol, Walker put on such a stripe show that he blew away one of Harmon’s fellow students, Rickie Fowler.

“It was some of the best I’ve seen him swing it,” Fowler said, “hitting it close on every hole.”

Trusting the changes, and himself, was the final piece to Walker’s success. Before he headed out for his 36-hole day, Harmon told him: “Just go out and show them who Jimmy Walker really is.”

Sure enough, he played his last 28 holes without a bogey – remarkable, when you consider that he hadn’t played a blemish-free round since May – and became just the third player in the past 20 years to win the PGA wire to wire.

“Jimmy just played too good all day,” Day said.

Afterward, a worn-out Walker rushed to take pictures with PGA staffers, greens staff and family before nightfall.

It was a reminder of just how close they’d come to pushing the year’s final major into an extra day, or two, and how they’d spared the PGA from another night of overheated discussion and second-guessing.

Despite a dicey forecast that called for more stops and starts than Manhattan traffic, players were sent out in pairs off the first tee Saturday, with the last group slated for 2:55 p.m. local time. Walker didn’t even get halfway through his warmup before the horn sounded to suspend play.

Facing a media mob five hours later, PGA setup czar Kerry Haigh squirmed as he was bombarded with questions about why they didn’t tee off earlier, and in threesomes, to avoid the exact scenario that sent the 2005 PGA here off-track. Most peculiar was how Haigh and Co. clung to one time-honored tradition – everybody must start at No. 1! – while eschewing another, with no re-pair after 54 holes.

Of course, those minor inconveniences paled to the PGA’s unprecedented decision Sunday morning, midway through the 36-hole slog. For the first time in major-championship history, they allowed preferred lies in the fairways that had more worms than grass. On a rain-softened course, there was plenty of locker-room chatter that a player might lift, clean and cheat himself into the record books with the first 62 in a major. But no one even sniffed that hallowed mark.

After all of the initial handwringing, the decision to play the ball up was universally praised by the players, even though it didn’t produce the most thrilling golf – a series of clobbered drives, plugged irons and birdie putts left short on the chewed-up greens.

That was the early pattern for Walker, at least until the 10th hole. After beginning his round with nine consecutive pars, he holed out from the bunker for a much-needed birdie, then followed it up on 11 with a 30-foot slider to push two shots clear of Day.

When Walker moved three ahead after a short birdie on 17, it looked like he’d be able to enjoy a victory lap on the final hole.

That’s when Day ripped a 240-yard 2-iron to 15 feet and rolled in the putt, igniting the crowd. Even better, he glared back down the fairway, sending a message to Walker, who was waiting with ball in hand, 287 yards away, needing only a 5.

“It doesn’t matter,” Sanders told Walker after seeing the crowd explode, and his boss agreed.

Rather than lay up to a comfortable distance, Walker crunched the numbers and decided that ripping a 3-wood up toward the green was his best option. He wouldn't make bogey from there.

“And then I literally hit it in the worst place you could hit it,” he said. “I didn’t mean to. It just happened.”

Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler and Day had returned to the 18th green to watch the drama unfold. Tracking the action on CBS' small handheld monitor, Spieth implored his friend and fellow Texan to play the smart shot, to send his pitch shot to the back of the green, to two-putt for par and his first major title.

As Walker calmly stroked in his 3-footer to win, Fowler documented the moment on Snapchat; Spieth tugged nervously on his upper lip; Day shushed his son, Dash; and Harmon waited high above the green, in the Sky Sports TV booth. “This is the first time I ever wanted to stop talking,” he joked.

The cheers from the crowd said plenty.

Just before 8 p.m., Harmon was relieved of his TV duties. He made his way down from the tower and onto the green. Finally, it was his turn for a picture, for a shot with the Wanamaker, and in that moment he couldn’t help but tease Walker about his new beard.

“It’s special,” Harmon said a few moments later, his eyes welling with tears. “He was a great friend before we even worked together. I’m just happy for him.”

The plan is to meet up soon in Walker’s hometown of Boerne, Texas, coach and student, and to celebrate. They won't forget the wine opener.  

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Spieth takes familiar break ahead of Open defense

By Rex HoggardJuly 16, 2018, 3:50 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – As his title chances seemed to be slipping away during the final round of last year’s Open Championship, Jordan Spieth’s caddie took a moment to remind him who he was.

Following a bogey at No. 13, Michael Greller referenced a recent vacation he’d taken to Mexico where he’d spent time with Michael Phelps and Michael Jordan and why he deserved to be among that group of singular athletes.

Spieth, who won last year’s Open, decided to continue the tradition, spending time in Cabo again before this week’s championship.

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“I kind of went through the same schedule,” Spieth said on Monday at Carnoustie. “It was nice to have a little vacation.”

Spieth hasn’t played since the Travelers Championship; instead he attended the Special Olympics USA Games earlier this month in Seattle with his sister. It was Spieth’s first time back to the Pacific Northwest since he won the 2015 U.S. Open.

“I went out to Chambers Bay with [Greller],” Spieth said. “We kind of walked down the 18th hole. It was cool reliving those memories.”

But most of all Spieth said he needed a break after a particularly tough season.

“I had the itch to get back to it after a couple weeks of not really working,” he said. “It was nice to kind of have that itch to get back.”

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Harrington: Fiery Carnoustie evokes Hoylake in '06

By Ryan LavnerJuly 16, 2018, 3:45 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – One course came to mind when Padraig Harrington arrived on property and saw a firm, fast and yellow Carnoustie.

Hoylake in 2006.

That's when Tiger Woods avoided every bunker, bludgeoned the links with mid-irons and captured the last of his three Open titles.

So Harrington was asked: Given the similarity in firmness between Carnoustie and Hoylake, can Tiger stir the ghosts this week?

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“I really don’t know,” Harrington said Monday. “He’s good enough to win this championship, no doubt about it. I don’t think he could play golf like the way he did in 2006. Nobody else could have tried to play the golf course the way he did, and nobody else could have played the way he did. I suspect he couldn’t play that way now, either. But I don’t know if that’s the strategy this week, to lay up that far back.”

With three days until the start of this championship, that’s the biggest question mark for Harrington, the 2007 winner here. He doesn’t know what his strategy will be – but his game plan will need to be “fluid.” Do you attack the course with driver and try to fly the fairway bunkers? Or do you attempt to lay back with an iron, even though it’s difficult to control the amount of run-out on the baked-out fairways and bring the bunkers into play?

“The fairways at Hoylake are quite flat, even though they were very fast,” Harrington said. “There’s a lot of undulations in the fairways here, so if you are trying to lay up, you can get hit the back of a slope and kick forward an extra 20 or 30 yards more than you think. So it’s not as easy to eliminate all the risk by laying up.”

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How will players game-plan for Carnoustie?

By Rex HoggardJuly 16, 2018, 3:31 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Justin Thomas took a familiar slash with his driver on the 18th tee on Monday at Carnoustie and watched anxiously as his golf ball bounced and bounded down the fairway.

Unlike the two previous editions of The Open, at what is widely considered the rota’s most demanding test, a particularly warm and dry summer has left Carnoustie a parched shade of yellow and players like Thomas searching for answers.

Under the best circumstances, Carnoustie is every bit the unforgiving participant. But this week promises to be something altogether different, with players already dumbfounded by how far the ball is chasing down fairways and over greens.

Brown is beautiful here at Royal Dark & Dusty.

But then it’s also proving to be something of a unique test.

Where most practice rounds at The Open are spent trying to figure out what lines are best off tees, this is more a study of lesser evils.

Tee shots, like at the par-4 17th hole, ask multiple questions with few answers. On his first attempt, Thomas hit 2-iron off the tee at No. 17. It cleared the Barry Burn and bounded down the middle of the fairway. Perfect, right? Not this year at Carnoustie, as Thomas’ tee shot kept rolling until it reached the same burn, which twists and turns through both the 17th and 18th fairways, at a farther intersection.

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“A hole like 17 in this wind, the trick is getting a club that will carry [the burn],” said Thomas, who played 18 holes on Monday with Tiger Woods. “If that hole gets downwind you can have a hard time carrying the burn and keeping it short of the other burn. It’s pretty bizarre.”

The sixth hole can offer a similar dilemma, with players needing to carry their tee shots 275 yards to avoid a pair of pot bunkers down the right side of the fairway. Yet just 26 yards past those pitfalls looms a second set of bunkers. Even for the game’s best, trying to weave a fairway wood or long-iron into a 26-yard window can be challenging.

“Six is a really hard hole, it really just depends on how you want to play it. If you want to take everything on and have a chance of hitting an iron into a par 5, or just kind of lay back and play it as a three-shot hole,” Thomas shrugged.

It’s difficult to quantify precisely how short the 7,400-yard layout is playing. It’s not so far players are flying the ball in the air, particularly with relatively little wind in the forecast the rest of the week, so much as it is a question of how a particular shot will run out after it’s made contact with the firm turf.

As the field began to get their first taste of the bouncy fun, one of the earliest indications something was askew came on Sunday when Padraig Harrington, who won The Open the last time it was played at Carnoustie in 2007, announced to the social world that he’d hit into the burn on the 18th hole.

“This time it was the one at the green, 457 yards away,” the Irishman tweeted. “The fairways are a tad fast.”

Most players have already resigned themselves to a steady diet of mid-irons off tees this week in an attempt to at least partially control the amount of run-out each shot will have.

Jordan Spieth, the defending champion, hadn’t played a practice round prior to his media session, but could tell what’s in store just from his abbreviated range session on Monday. “Extremely baked out,” he said.

The conditions have already led Spieth and his caddie, Micheal Greller, to conjure up a tentative game plan.

“You might wear out your 5- and 4-irons off the tee instead of hitting 3- or 2-irons like you’re used to,” Greller told him.

But even that might not be the answer, as Tommy Fleetwood discovered on Sunday during a practice round. Fleetwood has a unique connection with Carnoustie having shot the course record (63) during last year’s Dunhill Links Championship.

The Englishman doesn’t expect his record to be in danger this week.

In fact, he explained the dramatically different conditions were evident on the third hole on Sunday.

“There’s holes that have been nothing tee shots, like the third. If you play that in the middle of September or October [when the Dunhill is played] and it’s green and soft, you could just hit a mid-iron down the fairway and knock it on with a wedge,” Fleetwood said. “Yesterday it was playing so firm, the fairways really undulate and you have bunkers on either side, it’s actually all of a sudden a tough tee shot.”

The alternative to the iron game plan off the tee would be to simply hit driver, an option at least one long-hitter is considering this week if his practice round was any indication.

On Sunday, Jon Rahm played aggressively off each tee, taking the ubiquitous fairway bunkers out of play but at the same time tempting fate with each fairway ringed by fescue rough, which is relatively tame given the dry conditions. But even that option has consequences.

“It’s kind of strange where there’s not really a number that you know you’re going to be short,” said Fleetwood, who played his Sunday practice round with Rahm. “[Rahm] hit a drive on 15 that was like 400 yards. You just can’t account for that kind of stuff.”

Whatever tactic players choose, this Open Championship promises to be a much different test than what players have become accustomed to at Carnoustie.

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Fleetwood: Carnoustie course record won't help at Open

By Ryan LavnerJuly 16, 2018, 2:28 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Tommy Fleetwood holds the competitive course record at Carnoustie, but he’s skeptical that his past experience will help him at The Open.

Last fall, in the European Tour’s Dunhill Links Championship, Fleetwood birdied six of his last eight holes to card a bogey-free, 9-under 63, the lowest score ever at what is widely considered to be the most difficult course in the Open rota.

No one expects a repeat this week at Carnoustie – not with the conditions this brown, firm and fast.

“It’s a completely different course,” Fleetwood said Monday. “Shots that you’ve hit have literally no relevance for a lot of it.

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“It doesn’t do any harm to have played it for a few years. It doesn’t do any harm to have a course record, but it’s a completely different challenge to what we normally face.”

Fleetwood took a much-needed two-week break after the French Open, deciding to withdraw from last week’s Scottish Open for a bit more time in his own bed. (He said it was his last full week at home until mid-October.) Since his sparkling 63 to nearly steal the U.S. Open, the Englishman said that he’d “run out of steam” but now feels energized.  

“There’s not really a good reason why I couldn’t do it (this week),” he said. “It really doesn’t matter what’s happened in the past. The only thing they could do is build your confidence and give you examples of what you can do – examples that you can end up there, and you have the game to compete.”