Tour battles two-way miss with course setup all week

By Will GrayMay 15, 2016, 11:29 pm

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – In some ways, a championship golf course is similar to a back judge at an NFL game.

There’s a role to play in the proceedings, sure, and an important one at that. But neither should ever become the focal point of an event or dictate the outcome.

And much like a referee, a course often only gets the brunt of attention when things go awry. Last week at the Wells Fargo Championship, for instance, players battled a brute of a layout that kept the winning score in single digits under par. But we didn’t hear a peep.

This week at The Players Championship was, uh, the opposite of that.

Just as amateurs fight the dreaded two-way miss, tournament officials never could quite get it right this week with the Stadium Course setup. Players feasted on surprisingly soft greens for the first 36 holes, only to encounter glassy surfaces where simply balancing the putter blade behind the ball became a challenge.

Player feedback on the greens Saturday ranged from “borderline unfair” to “dead and balding” to “putting on dance floors.” After two days of getting crushed for offering up soft conditions, tournament officials simply sprinted too far in the opposite direction.

“We always play golf on the edge. That’s what tournament setup is,” Justin Rose said Saturday. “Championship golf is always getting it on the knife edge because you want it firm and fast. Players talk about, ‘Oh, we want it firm and fast,’ but then when we get it just a little too firm and fast, we hate it. So there’s a very fine line there, and it’s difficult sometimes.”

It was a shift that, by multiple player accounts, only occurred because the biggest story of the first two days was how easy the course was playing as eventual champion Jason Day broke the 36-hole scoring record.

While the Tour took successful steps to rein the greens back in for the final round, they also insisted that Saturday’s side show was simply the result of a meteorological perfect storm, not a reaction to low scores.

“We didn’t deviate from our program,” said Mark Russell, the Tour’s vice president of rules and competition. “We just got in a situation where, no humidity and wind, and not a cloud in the sky.”

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Either way, the ramifications of Saturday’s carnage were clearly felt the following day as Tour officials made not one, but two revisions to final-round pin placements in order to err on the side of caution.

“I’m sure they scared themselves with what happened to the course yesterday,” Graeme McDowell said. “I think with the humidity levels and how dry they got, I think they just scared themselves a little bit that that was possible.”

With course conditions shifting quickly from TPC Deere Run to Shinnecock Hills, players didn’t know what to expect entering the final round. Justin Rose improved his score by 12 shots, going from 78 to 66, but he also admitted to stepping up to a lengthy birdie try on the opening hole with a fear of where his ball might end up.

“I had no clue,” Rose said. “I’m like, ‘OK, well they look a little slower, but I have no idea.’ … I could have putted it off the green. I just had no concept.”

Variations in speed were expected all week long – after all, an inability to maintain consistency with this particular grass strand is a big reason why the greens will be dug up come Tuesday and replaced with a more responsive mini-verde variation.

But the larger issue for players, and the one that led to much of the belly-aching, was one that the Tour likely could have neutralized ahead of time.

“I think the shock factor was worse than anything else yesterday,” McDowell said. “It was like, ‘Whoa, what the hell just happened?’ It wasn’t unplayable, it was just shocking to see the change.”

“I think the thing we were all saying yesterday was there was no warning. There was no warning that it was going to get like that,” added Rory McIlroy. “If there was a notice up in the locker room saying, ‘The greens are stimping at 14 right now,’ then you sort of have a decent idea.”

Years from now, the lone memory of this year’s Players will likely be the dominance with which Day raised the Australian flag high above TPC Sawgrass.

But if the folks in Ponte Vedra are paying attention – as they assuredly are – they’ll learn from the mistakes incurred this week, where course setup decisions very nearly marred the circuit’s flagship event.

The fluctuations in setup were far from ideal, but as McDowell points out, things could have been much worse as the dying greens hosted their final hours of competitive play.

“What would have been interesting would have been if they got it nearly right yesterday, what would have happened today?” he wondered. “If they hadn’t learned from what happened yesterday, today could’ve been scary.”

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Tiger Tracker: 147th Open Championship

By Tiger TrackerJuly 20, 2018, 2:30 pm

Tiger Woods shot his second consecutive 70 on Friday at Carnoustie and enters weekend play at even par for the championship, still in contention for major No. 15.

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Scott and Sunesson a one-week partnership

By Rex HoggardJuly 20, 2018, 2:13 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Adam Scott has been in between caddies for the last month and went with a bold stand-in for this week’s Open Championship, coaxing veteran looper Fanny Sunesson out of retirement to work for him at Carnoustie.

Sunesson caddied for Nick Faldo in his prime, as the duo won four major titles together. She also worked for Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia before a back injury forced her to retire.

But for this week’s championship, Scott convinced the Swede to return to the caddie corps. The results have been impressive, with the Australian following an opening 71 with a second-round 70 for a tie for 16th place.

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“It's been going great. Fanny is, obviously, a fantastic caddie, and to be able to have that experience out there with me is certainly comforting,” Scott said. “We've gotten along really well. She's picked up on my game quickly, and I think we think about things in a very similar way.”

Scott was also asked about a potential long-term partnership between the duo, but he didn’t sound hopeful.

“It's just for this week,” he said. “It would be up to her, but I don't think she's making plans of a comeback. I was being a bit opportunistic in contacting her and coaxing her out of retirement, I guess. But I think she's having a good week. We'll just take it one week at the moment.”

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After tense Augusta Sunday, Rory ready to be aggressive

By Ryan LavnerJuly 20, 2018, 1:51 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Rory McIlroy temporarily lost his superpowers during the Masters.  

In one of the most surprising rounds of the year, he played tentatively and carefully during the final day. Squaring off against the major-less Patrick Reed, on the brink of history, with the backing of nearly the entire crowd, it was McIlroy who shrank in the moment, who looked like the one searching for validation. He shot a joyless 74 and wound up six shots behind Reed.

No, the final round was nowhere near as dispiriting as the finale in 2011, but McIlroy still sulked the following week. He binge-watched TV shows. Devoured a few books. Guzzled a couple of bottles of wine. His pity party lasted a few days, until his wife, Erica, finally dragged him out of the house for a walk.

Some deeper introspection was required, and McIlroy revealed a healthier self-analysis Friday at Carnoustie. He diagnosed what went wrong at Augusta, and then again two months later at the U.S. Open, where he blew himself out of the tournament with an opening 80.

“I was worrying too much about the result, not focusing on the process,” he said. “Sunday at Augusta was a big learning curve for me because, even if I hadn’t won that tournament, but I went down swinging and aggressive and committing to every shot, I would have walked away a lot happier.”

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

And so McIlroy has a new mantra this week at The Open.

Let it go.

Don’t hold back. Don’t worry about the repercussions. Don’t play scared.

“I’m committed to making sure, even if I don’t play my best golf and don’t shoot the scores I want, I’m going to go down swinging, and I’m going to go down giving my best,” he said. “The result is the byproduct of all the little things you do to lead up to that. Sometimes I’ve forgotten that, and I just need to get back in that mindset.”

It’s worked through two rounds, even after the cool, damp conditions led McIlroy to abandon his ultra-aggressive strategy. He offset a few mistakes with four birdies, shooting a second consecutive 69 to sit just a couple of shots off the lead.

During a sun-splashed first round, McIlroy gleefully banged driver on almost every hole, flying or skirting the bunkers that dot these baked-out, undulating fairways. He wasn’t particularly accurate, but he also didn’t need to be, as the thin, wispy rough enabled every player to at least advance their approach shots near the green.

Friday’s weather presented a different challenge. A steady morning rain took some of the fire out of parched fairways, but the cooler temperatures also reduced much of the bombers’ hang time. Suddenly, all of the bunkers were in play, and McIlroy needed to adjust his driver-heavy approach (he hit only six) on the fly.

“It just wasn’t worth it,” he said.

McIlroy hit a few “skanky” shots, in his words, but even his bigger misses – on the sixth and 17th holes – were on the proper side, allowing him to scramble for par and keep the round going.

It’s the fifth time in his career that he’s opened a major with back-to-back rounds in the 60s. He’s gone on to win three of the previous four – the lone exception that disastrous final round (80) at Augusta in 2011.

“I don’t want to say easy,” he said, “but it’s felt comfortable.”

The weekend gets uncomfortable for everyone, apparently even four-time major winners who, when in form, ooze confidence and swagger.

Once again McIlroy has that look at a major.

The only thing left to do?

Let it go.

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Z. Johnson may have to pay for the jet home

By Rex HoggardJuly 20, 2018, 1:23 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Zach Johnson will have some bragging rights when he gets back to the ultimate golf frat house on Friday after a second-round 67 moved him into the lead at The Open.

Johnson is rooming with Jordan Spieth, Jason Dufner, Kevin Kisner, Jimmy Walker, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler this week at Carnoustie. It’s a tradition that began two years ago at Royal Troon.

Kisner joked on Thursday after he took the first-round lead that the perks for the house/tournament front-runner were limited: “I probably get to eat first,” he said.

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

There is, however, one running wager.

“Two years ago we, I don't know if you call it bet, but agreement that, if you win, you get the jet and you buy it, so we go home,” said Johnson, who added that because of varying travel arrangements, the wager might not be needed this year. “I didn't pay last year. Somebody else did.”

Spieth won last year’s championship at Royal Birkdale.

Despite the expense, Johnson said he didn’t know how much it costs to charter a private flight back to the United States, but it’s a good problem to have.

“I’d be happy to fork it over,” he smiled.