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At WMPO, embrace the chaos and enjoy the party

By Will GrayFebruary 1, 2018, 12:38 am

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Don’t let the noise distract you.

The party was pumping Wednesday at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, just like it always does. Fans came in droves to stand six-deep during a pro-am round, and pros and celebrities alike were serenaded by a DJ turning up the tunes as they stepped to the tee at the iconic par-3 16th.

Disc jockey, that is. Not Dustin Johnson.

But Johnson is one of the few big names missing this week from the PGA Tour’s biggest party, which has not-so-quietly transitioned from an event defined by a 163-yard cauldron to one that boasts a sneaky strong field amid a hectic West Coast Swing.

Five of the top seven players in the world are here this week. It's a field headlined by former Arizona State product Jon Rahm and one that includes two-time defending champ Hideki Matsuyama. Rickie Fowler, a runner-up two years ago, has also returned, while Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas will have a chance to rekindle their oft-discussed friendship as they play the first two rounds together.

The party atmosphere remains alive and well, and now it’s starting to attract some of the game’s biggest names.

“I think everybody appreciates what this tournament is, and that this is a special week, different than any other that we have on Tour,” said Phil Mickelson, who is making his record-tying 29th tournament appearance. “Guys kind of embrace that, and they embrace this environment.”

This week’s winner is projected to receive 60 OWGR points, the largest haul offered in the Arizona desert since Mickelson won the second of his three titles back in 2005. The number dipped as low as 50 in 2012, but in the years since it has been on a decidedly upward tick as more and more top-ranked players try their hand amid an unparalleled atmosphere.

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Credit is due to tournament organizers, who have proven to be forward-thinking and willing to embrace the challenges of a date on the calendar that regularly pits this tournament against the Super Bowl. Tour events are not necessarily known for their willingness to make widespread changes, but a quick trip to YouTube shows that when Tiger Woods made his famous ace on 16 back in 1997, the hole was lined with fans on foot rather than those propped up in sky-high grandstands and hospitality tents.

These days, there’s not only a cavern enveloping the entire 16th hole, but the three-story skyboxes have also popped up on the adjacent 17th green and down the final fairway. There are minor villages serving as watering holes throughout the property, with nearly every hillside occupied by at least a few dozen fans.

A tournament that once hung its hat on a single memorable hole has both literally and figuratively evolved.

“I like this place,” said Thomas, who is playing for the fourth straight year. “I think word’s kind of spreading, once people come here and kind of feel the somewhat of a major-type feel with some of the roars and the crowds, especially on some of those holes where you get a lot of people.”

Spieth offered a unique view on the tournament’s recent rise in prominence, noting that it has coincided with an era in which players like he and Thomas have climbed toward the top of the world rankings at a young age. It’s a theory that certainly has merit given that the average age of a top-10 player is currently 28.5 years old, an unprecedented low.

“I think there’s probably a little bit of a trend with it being the younger guys coming out and really enjoying this craziness,” Spieth said. “I think if you take an average age, it’s gone younger in the top 20, top 30 in the world, so I think that would probably tell you that it makes the field stronger.”

Craziness seems like an appropriate descriptor, and it’s one this event doesn’t shy away from, with fan estimates measured in the hundreds of thousands by week’s end. But the Stadium Course layout also plays a role in enticing players to return year after year.

That’s at least according to Thomas, who admitted he skips the WGC-HSBC Champions event in China every year despite the guaranteed points and money offered because he simply doesn’t think he can win at Shenzhen International Golf Club.

“At least for me it’s misunderstood,” Thomas said. “A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, you’ve got to go play Phoenix just because it’s a party and so much fun,’ and this and that. But I really do like this golf course, and that’s why I come play. I would never come play a tournament just because it’s fun.”

Whatever their motivations, some of the biggest names have gathered this week in the desert, where many of the game’s mores will go out the window. For one week only, players bask in an emotionally-charged atmosphere, and they even let their hair down a bit when walking to the 16th hole.

Bring on the noise. Embrace the chaos. Enjoy the party.

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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, 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.”

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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.