Woods running out of excuses after MC at St. Andrews

By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2015, 8:49 pm

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – It’s late Saturday at the Old Course, and Tiger Woods is trudging up the 18th fairway.

R&A members peer through the bay windows of the old stone clubhouse. Children balance on the metal barriers to get a better view. About a dozen men cram onto the balcony of the Rusacks Hotel, a Stella Artois in each of their right hands. And four couples sit on the benches atop the Old Course Shop, clapping politely and basking in the warm afternoon sun.

Woods doffed his white cap to the crowd, and the fans cheered louder.

He turned to Jason Day.

“It’s the greatest walk in golf,” he says.

This is only Day’s second trip to St. Andrews, but he knows all about the history here, about some of the most glorious chapters authored by the man walking beside him.

“Yeah,” Day replied, “it’s nice when you have an eight-shot lead, too.”

Fifteen years is a lifetime in golf, and the Woods in 2000 and the Woods now couldn’t be more dissimilar, in almost every respect.

As Woods crouched behind his putt in front of the 18th green, arms crossed in the stiff wind, he stared up at the big yellow scoreboard atop the 18th grandstand. There was no mistaking the black +7 next to Woods’ name, nor could he overlook his 17-shot deficit to the leader, JOHNSON D., who after 36 holes was at 10-under 134.

Heck, the only reason Woods was still around late Saturday at the Old Course was because Mother Nature decided to prolong his agony. His second round was delayed three times – because of rain, darkness and then wind – but if nothing else, all of the suspensions at least allowed Woods to play the weekend in a major for only the third time in the past 23 months.

Full-field scores: 144th Open Championship

A week at St. Andrews was supposed to lift him out of his miserable slump, to signal the start of his resurgence. Instead, it only provided more questions, none of which looms larger than this:

If he couldn’t summon the goods here – the only place outside Augusta, Ga., where he seems capable of morphing from Bad Tiger to Good Tiger – when and where could his game possibly turn?

Woods mustered only three birdies on a course that “wasn’t playing that hard” … and he had no explanation for why he couldn’t flight his shots into the wind … and he couldn’t get on a run, of birdies, of pars, of anything. And all of this, remember, came just two weeks after one of his most encouraging performances in the past few years, at The Greenbrier, where he led the field in proximity to the hole.

When he spoke with the media afterward, he wasn't angry or defensive. He just looked and sounded defeated.

“I felt like I was playing well enough to win this event,” he said.

Though a player’s confidence must be protected at all costs, Woods has always taken it to the extreme. He is trained to never appear vulnerable, and his mind clings to any positive thought, no matter how absurd it may sound. It’s part of what made him so great.

Now, though, as his game sinks to new lows, you can’t help but wonder if even Woods believes his own bizarre explanations. His recent use of weird golf jargon – "deactivated glutes" and "release patterns" and "baseline shifts" and "feels" – serves only to shield himself from the ugly truths about his floundering game.

He used a new excuse Friday. 

Asked what he learned about his game this week, Woods said that he was surprised that his shots weren't flying through the wind, even though they were struck "solid" and "flush."

“We're going to have to take a look at my numbers, see if the spin rates are on or not,” he said.

What happened to just hitting golf shots? 

Now fully healthy, Woods has been working through this most recent swing change with Chris Como for about nine months. It's unclear if he's made any progress at all. His good swings are very good. He pures it at home, and on the tournament range, and in practice rounds – or, in other words, when it doesn’t matter.

Woods had a “great” warmup here Thursday, before the start of this 144th Open. Then he stepped into the box some 20 minutes later, when the shots counted for real, and hit three of his first four full shots 10-handicapper fat. On a calm day when the front nine averaged more than a shot-and-a-half under par – including an opening 29 from David Lingmerth – Woods turned in 40.

“This idea that all of a sudden Tiger can’t take it from the range to the course couldn’t be further from the truth,” tweeted his former swing coach, Hank Haney. “He has had this problem.”

Afterward, not even Woods could offer a reasonable explanation.

“Disappointing,” he sighed. His first-round 76 was the worst score of his pro career at St. Andrews.

During his struggles with injury and form over the past two years, Woods’ fallback line has been some variation of Well, I’ve been down this road before. But that’s not exactly true.

Yes, he has destroyed and then rebuilt his golf swing into a competition-crushing machine. Four times, in fact. We can debate whether that obsessive pursuit of perfection robbed him of valuable time in the prime of his career, but Woods has still won a lot of tournaments with four different swings.

Perhaps this latest overhaul was one too many, because the fifth swing change – at the start of his age-39 season, and only seven months removed from back surgery – has produced what is statistically the worst golf of his career.

Woods may insist that he’s close, but the numbers tell a different story: Entering this week, he ranked 194th in driving accuracy, 190th in greens hit, 96th in putting and 198th (out of 199) in scoring.

This is the first time in his career that he’s missed the cut in both summer Opens (23 over par in four rounds).

This is the first time in his career that he’s missed three cuts in the same PGA Tour season.

This is his fifth missed cut in the past two years, equaling his total during a 12-year run from 1997-2009.

And this is the first time in 19 years that he’ll be outside the top 250 in the world ranking.

So go ahead, find a bright spot, anything, that suggests that this is not a man who is completely and utterly lost.

Once, it’s a mistake. Twice, it’s a habit. And the third time, well, the third time it’s a reality, and the reality now is that Tiger Woods is a mediocre golfer on the PGA Tour, a guy sandwiched between Roberto Castro and Bill Lunde on the FedEx Cup points list, a guy who needs to average a top-3 finish in his next two starts (the July 30-Aug. 2 Quicken Loans National, Aug. 13-16 PGA) to avoid spending the postseason on the couch.

Sure, he could probably use the extra downtime. He could use the next few months to regroup and reassess, to nurture his fragile psyche, to decide what’s next.

For his part, Woods, who turns 40 in December, says he has no intentions of giving up. When asked earlier this week whether he has contemplated the R-word, he responded: “Retirement? I don’t have any AARP card yet, so I’m a ways from that.”

Even that joke backfired. After Woods put up the 76 on Thursday, the AARP couldn’t help but take a shot at the easy target, departing from its automated feed about Social Security and caregivers and municipal bonds to tweet: “It’s better to be over 50 than it is to be over par.”

Woods was over par again here in the second round, signing for a 75, but he hit a few shots late Saturday that reminded all of us how easy the game used to be.

On the par-4 16th, he wailed away on a driver that sailed over a pot bunker and left only a wedge into the green. He judged his punch shot perfectly, and the ball skipped onto the green and to within tap-in range for one of only three birdies this week. For one of the few times this week, he played golf, not swing.

After a nifty up-and-down from the Road Hole bunker, Woods then hammered a tee shot on the home hole that came to rest just short of the green. He gave his eagle putt a run, even raising his putter in anticipation of the roar, but it raced 6 feet by. The comebacker missed, too.

He gave a quick wave to the crowd lining the entire right side of the hole, to the kids on the barriers and the men on the balcony and the couples on the bench. Ten minutes later, Woods was in the backseat of a gray Mercedes sedan, headed off property.

He will be 45 when the Open returns here in 2021, and it’s anyone’s guess what his game will look like then, or if he’ll even still be competing.

“I’ll probably have less hair then,” he said, cracking a rare smile, “and hopefully a little better game.”

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Four players vying for DJ's No. 1 ranking at Open

By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 8:41 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Four players have an opportunity to overtake Dustin Johnson for world No. 1 this week.

According to Golf Channel world-rankings guru Alan Robinson, Justin Thomas, Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm each can grab the top spot in the world ranking.

Thomas’ path is the easiest. He would return to No. 1 with either a win and Johnson finishing worse than solo third, or even a solo runner-up finish as long as Johnson finishes worse than 49th.

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

Twenty years after his auspicious performance in The Open, Rose can get to No. 1 for the first time with a victory and Johnson finishing worse than a two-way tie for third.

Kopeka can rise to No. 1 if he wins consecutive majors, assuming that his good friend posts worse than a three-way tie for third.

And Rahm can claim the top spot with a win this week, a Johnson missed cut and a Thomas finish of worse than solo second.   

Johnson’s 15-month reign as world No. 1 ended after The Players. He wasn’t behind Thomas for long, however: After a tie for eighth at the Memorial, Johnson blew away the field in Memphis and then finished third at the U.S. Open to solidify his position at the top.

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Punch shot: Predictions for the 147th Open

By Golf Channel DigitalJuly 18, 2018, 4:00 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – In advance of the 147th Open Championship, GolfChannel.com writers sound off on burning questions as players ready for a fast and firm test at Carnoustie. Here’s what our writers think about myriad topics:

The Monday morning headline will be …

REX HOGGARD: “Survival.” This one is easy. It always is at Carnoustie, which is widely considered The Open’s most demanding major championship test. Monday’s headline will be that the champion - pick a champion, any one will do - “survived” another dramatic Open. You don’t dominate Carnoustie; you endure.

RYAN LAVNER: “DJ Bashes Way to Victory at Carnoustie.” If somehow a two-win season could be disappointing, it has been for DJ. He’s first in scoring average, birdie average, par-4 scoring, par-5 scoring, strokes gained: tee to green and proximity from the rough. Those last two stats are the most important, especially here at Carnoustie, with these dry conditions. The game’s preeminent long-and-straight driver, there’s a better-than-decent chance he rolls.

MERCER BAGGS: “Rahm Tough: Spaniard charges to Open victory.” Jon Rahm will claim him maiden major title this week by powering his way through the winds and fescue at Carnoustie.

JAY COFFIN: “Thomas wins second major, ascends to world No. 1 again.” Shortly after The Open last year, Thomas rolled through the end of the PGA Tour season. This is the time of year he likes best. Despite a poor Open record the last two years, he’s not remotely concerned. He’s a tad miffed he didn’t win in France two weeks ago and comes to Carnoustie refreshed, with a gameplan, and ready to pounce.

Who or what will be the biggest surprise?

HOGGARD: Style of play. Given Carnoustie’s reputation as a brute, the surprise will be how the champion arrives at his lofty perch. Unlike previous editions at Carnoustie, this week’s dry conditions will promote more aggressive play off the tee and the winner will defy the norm and power his way to victory.

LAVNER: Tiger Woods. This is Woods’ best chance to win a major this year, and here’s believing he contends. His greatest strengths are his iron game and scrambling, and both aspects will be tested to the extreme at Carnoustie, helping separate him from some of the pretenders. With even a little cooperation from his putter, he should be in the mix.

BAGGS: Padraig Harrington. He had a good opening round last week at the Scottish Open and has some good vibes being the 2007 Open champion at Carnoustie. He won’t contend for four rounds, but a few days in the mix would be a nice surprise.

COFFIN: Alex Noren. Perhaps someone ranked 11th in the world shouldn’t be a surprise, but with so much focus on some of the bigger, household names, don’t be surprised when Noren is in contention on Sunday. He hasn’t finished worse than 25th since early May and won two weeks ago in France. He also tied for sixth place last year at Royal Birkdale.

Who or what will be the biggest disappointment?

HOGGARD: Jordan Spieth. Although he was brilliant on his way to victory last year at Royal Birkdale, Spieth is not the same player for this week’s championship, the byproduct of a balky putter that has eroded his confidence. Spieth said giving back the claret jug this week was hard, but his finish will be even tougher.

LAVNER: Weather. This might sound a little sadistic, but one of the unique joys of covering this tournament is to watch the best in the world battle conditions they face only once a year – the bone-chilling cold, the sideways rain, the howling wind. It doesn’t appear as though that’ll happen this year. With only a few hours of light rain expected, and no crazy winds in the forecast, the biggest challenge for these stars will be judging the bounces on the hard, baked-out turf.

BAGGS: Jordan Spieth. The defending champion is still trying to find his winning form and Carnoustie doesn’t seem the place to do that. As much as he says he loves playing in strong winds, there should be enough danger around here to frustrate Spieth into a missed cut.

COFFIN: Rory McIlroy. I hope I’m wrong on this, because the game is better when Rory is in contention at majors. Putting always has been his issue and seemingly always will be. While there isn’t as much of a premium placed on putting this week because of slower greens, he may still have to hit it close. Super close.

What will be the winning score?

HOGGARD: 10 under. The last two Opens played at Carnoustie were won with 7-under and 6-over totals, but this week’s conditions will favor more aggressive play and lower scores. Expect to see plenty of birdies, but the great equalizer will come on Sunday when wind gusts are forecast to reach 25 mph.

LAVNER: 15 under. An Open at Carnoustie has never produced a winner lower than 9 under (Tom Watson in 1975), but never have the conditions been this susceptible to low scores. Sure, the fairway bunkers are still a one-shot penalty, but today’s big hitters can fly them. The thin, wispy rough isn’t much of a deterrent. And the wind isn’t expected to really whip until the final day.

BAGGS: 12 under. We aren’t going to see the same kind of weather we have previously witnessed at Carnoustie, and that’s a shame. Any players who catch relatively benign conditions should be able to go low, as long as they can properly navigate the fairway rollout.

COFFIN: 14 under. Walked into a local golf shop in the town of Carnoustie wearing a Golf Channel logo and the man behind the counter said, “It’ll take 14 under to win this week.” Well, he’s been here for years and seen Carnoustie host The Open twice before. He knows more about it than I do, so I’ll stick with his number.

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Watch: Na plays backwards flop and practices lefty

By Grill Room TeamJuly 18, 2018, 3:16 pm

Fresh off his victory at The Greenbrier, Kevin Na is taking a quite-literally-backwards approach to his Open prep.

Caddie Kenny Harms has been sharing videos of Na's early work at Carnoustie.

This one shows Na standing in a bunker and playing a flop shot over his own head (as opposed to someone else's):

While it's unlikely he'll have a need for that exact shot this week, it's far more likely a player may have to think about turning his club over and playing from the wrong side of the ball, like so:

Na has made 4 of 6 cuts at The Open and will look to improve on his best career finish, currently a T-22 in 2016 at Royal Troon.

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McIlroy growing 'comfortable' on Open courses

By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 1:45 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – For a player who once complained about the vagaries of links golf, Rory McIlroy enters this Open with a dazzling record in the sport’s oldest championship.

Though he missed the 2015 event because of an ankle injury, McIlroy has now posted three consecutive top-5 finishes in the year’s third major.

“It’s surprising a little bit that my best form in major championships has been this tournament,” he said Wednesday, “but at the same time I’ve grown up these courses, and I’m comfortable on them. I think going to courses on The Open rota that I’ve played quite a lot. I think that helps. You have a comfort level with the golf course, and you’ve built up enough experience to know where to hit and where not to hit it.”

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

McIlroy still regrets what happened in 2015, when he “did something slightly silly” and injured his ankle while playing soccer a few weeks before the event. That came a year after he triumphed at Royal Liverpool.

“Since 2010, I couldn’t wait to play The Open at St. Andrews,” he said. “I thought that was one of my best chances to win a major.”

He tied for 42nd at Carnoustie in 2007, earning low-amateur honors.