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Suddenly, Poulter is back on Augusta's doorstep

By Will GrayMarch 31, 2018, 10:31 pm

HUMBLE, Texas – After one day at the Houston Open, and with his opening round not yet complete, Ian Poulter started packing.

The Englishman had started the week with his travel plans still up in the air. A loss in the quarterfinals of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play last week was bittersweet, as Poulter thought his win in the Round of 16 was enough to secure his return to the Masters via a spot in the Official World Golf Ranking's top 50.

Instead, he got housed by Kevin Kisner in the quarterfinals and moved up only to 51st. In the aftermath, Poulter took to Twitter to vent his frustrations about the individuals in Austin who had fed him incorrect information about the ranking projections – and his Masters status – in between his matches Saturday.

So he debated whether or not to even tee it up this week at the Golf Club of Houston in a last-ditch effort to crash the party at Augusta National. Never one to hide his emotions, Poulter admitted that he struggled to keep things under wraps even after flying into town late Tuesday night.

His inner turmoil only worsened as he played his first 17 holes in 1 over, stranded by darkness with a single hole to play, and with the rest of the field feasting on a soft and vulnerable course. So he began to pack his belongings, still sorting through his frustrations from the week prior and expecting to miss the cut.

“I was a little warm under the collar, yeah. Some people getting in my head space, which is never good. Never good for my psyche, anyway,” Poulter said. “Maybe I was a bit angry Thursday. Maybe I was kind of forcing it, trying to force my way into a tournament. Didn’t work, had to re-think it, had to kind of blow the cobwebs out Thursday night and reset and go again.”

As it turns out, Poulter’s reset was nothing short of extraordinary.

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Thanks in large part to a putting adjustment he made during the early hours Friday morning, Poulter has gone on a tear while racing up the leaderboard. He surged into contention with a second-round 64, tacked on a bogey-free 65 and suddenly shares the 54-hole lead with Beau Hossler.

After a whirlwind 48 hours, Poulter now has everything to play for: his first worldwide win since 2012, his first ever stroke-play win in the U.S., and yes, the final ticket to the Masters.

“I’m in a funny position, right? I said to you guys I’ve got no expectations going out on the golf course. I didn’t have any expectations, I just went out and played golf,” Poulter said. “There’s a good group of players right now that are currently just behind that are going to be pressing, so I need to press as well.”

For the second straight week, Poulter is employing the putter he used to bedevil the U.S. team at the 2012 Ryder Cup. The results in Houston have been just as impressive as they were at Medinah, as Poulter has yet to take more than 26 putts in any round.

Dating back to Thursday, his last 41 holes have included 16 birdies, 25 pars and no bogeys as he vaulted from outside the top 120 into a share of the lead. In Poulter’s mind, the switch back to a weapon that has performed well in the past gives him “no excuses.”

“When you grab something that you know has done wonderful things, you have to take the onus then because you know it’s not the putter; it’s generally the person holding it,” Poulter said. “So I could go out, not blame anyone else and really try to find some good mojo, some good memories.”

Granted, it’s hardly a one-horse race. There will be 12 players within three shots of the lead when the final round begins, chief among them Hossler who has had brushes with contention in the past but hopes to build on the lessons he learned as he looks for his maiden victory.

“I expect more than likely the guy who wins to be within four or five groups of the final pairing,” Hossler said. “But that said, there’s so many good players right there, it’s a very bunched leaderboard still and I think it’s going to be a dog fight down there.”

After last week’s information debacle, Poulter refuses to discuss the possibility of earning the final spot in the Masters in the most dramatic fashion imaginable. Despite the fact that he had one foot out the door as recently as Thursday night, he’s now within reach of every goal he set when he decided to honor his commitment to play.

The circumstances are different this time around, but Poulter is improbably within one good round of a return trip to Augusta National – this time with no world rankings projections required.

“I’ll have no emotion at all. I’m going to go play golf,” he said. “I’m in a no-lose situation. I haven’t won a stroke-play event on the PGA Tour, and I’m in a position where I’ve got an opportunity to. So people will back against me, that’s fine. I’ll go and do my job.”

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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.”

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.  

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Height of irony: Phil putts in front of 'rules' sign

By Grill Room TeamJuly 18, 2018, 1:36 pm

A picture is worth 1,000 words and potentially two strokes for playing a moving ball under Rule 14-5 but not Rule 1-2.

Phil Mickelson has been having some fun during his Open prep at Carnoustie hitting flop shots over human beings, but the irony of this photo below is too obvious to go over anyone's head.

Mickelson also tried tapping down fescue two weeks ago at The Greenbrier, incurring another two-shot penalty.

And so we're left to wonder about what Phil asked himself back at Shinnecock Hills: "The real question is, ‘What am I going to do next?’”