Els (66) winning battle against putting woes

By Will GrayMay 12, 2016, 8:17 pm

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Even after a surprising return to the leaderboard, even after a round that gave credence to the notion that his short-game woes are behind him, Ernie Els couldn’t bring himself to say the word.

“Listen, I don’t have the…” Els started, then stopped. He paused, lowered his voice and crouched a little closer to the small group of reporters huddled around him behind the clubhouse at TPC Sawgrass.

“I don’t have the yips, you know?” he said, this time barely above a whisper. “That’s a different deal.”

Most golfers hesitate to give breath to the dreaded y-word, but Els’ pause is even more understandable. After all, he lived through the worst-case scenario on the game’s biggest stage just last month, undone by a six-putt on the opening hole of the Masters.

“There’s a short up there somewhere and you just can’t do what you normally do,” Els said at the time. “I was standing there, I’ve got a 3-footer, I’ve made thousands of three-footers and I just couldn’t take it back.”

That was simply the latest struggle for Els on the greens, as on at least two other occasions in recent months his short-range misses have turned into viral sensations.

But Thursday at The Players Championship, Els once again resembled the player who has won four major titles. He made birdies on five of his first seven holes, turned in 31 and ultimately ended up with a 6-under 66 that tied for his lowest round this season and left him three shots behind Jason Day.

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That balky putter, the one that has caused so many headaches of late, actually turned into a strength. Els needed only 24 putts to complete his round, holing every putt he faced inside 10 feet.

“He looked awesome out there,” said Aaron Baddeley, who played alongside Els in the opening round. “He putted really nice, he hit a lot of good putts. The putts he didn’t make looked like they were going in. He’s obviously done some really good work, and it paid off.”

In the wake of his Masters debacle, Els said he was flooded with input from people hoping to help repair his frayed nerves. They came from all corners of the globe: South Africa, England, Denmark, Sweden. Some offered tips, while others offered equipment fixes.

For Els, though, the best results came from simplifying his thought process – not adding new components to it.

“A lot of people want to help you and get you better and so on,” he said. “It’s like a cliché. You ask all these guys, (but) if I just did what I thought I should do, I’d be better off. But sometimes you listen.”

It was listening that did him in at Augusta National, as a well-meaning tip led to a cringe-worthy display on the opening green.

It also led Els to begin reading up on the science behind the yips and what causes them, after which the 46-year-old concluded he has been afflicted by a different condition.

“That’s like, something neurological. Mine is just a lack of confidence, and I’ve just got to see more golf balls go in the hole and I think I’ll be there,” he said. “It’s just kind of an emotion, an anxiety, and it comes from a lack of confidence.”

That confidence was not lacking during Els’ opening round, as the “Big Easy” was back to his smiling, affable ways. But as any player who has faced a similar plight can attest, a potential relapse lurks around the corner of every 3-foot putt.

Bernhard Langer understands that better than perhaps any other Tour player, having first been afflicted with putting issues in 1976. Langer estimated Wednesday that he suffered through four different bouts with the yips during his career, each one forcing him to face some sobering questions.

“Every time you have it, you wonder, ‘Well, will this ever go away, and how?’” Langer said. “You know how it is; when we’re in a dark valley, we can’t always see the light at the end of the tunnel, and you want to get out of there as soon as possible.”

Els addressed his problems head-on in the immediate aftermath of Augusta, but, like Langer, he then sought to put it behind him as quickly as possible. For Els, that meant getting back to work right away with the RBC Heritage the following week, where his putter began to turn around. It also meant relying on the advice of swing coach David Leadbetter, with whom Els has worked off-and-on for more than two decades.

“Me and him, we understand each other like I understand my wife,” Els said. “I know where he’s going with all this stuff.”

Leadbetter has had Els reviewing footage of his swing from successful campaigns like 2002 and 2004 and Els, now fully healthy after battling recent knee and hip ailments, is finally able to replicate what he sees.

“I feel comfortable, and I’ve been working hard since (the Masters) on things that I have been doing,” he said. “Hopefully it holds up. I feel good.”

At least for one day, Ernie Els kept his demons at bay – even though the scar tissue they have inflicted remains clearly visible. Tomorrow, the battle begins anew.

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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.”

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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

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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.

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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.”