LONDON, Ontario – So Yeon Ryu used a second straight bogey-free round to pull away at the Canadian Women’s Open. Ryu shot a 6-under 66 Friday at the London Hunt and Country Club to get to 15 under, the best two-round start in the tournament’s history. She was five strokes ahead of fellow South Korean Na Yeon Choi, playing partner Anna Nordqvist and Danielle Kang. ”A lot of birdies is still a good sign, but no bogeys is more (of) a great sign because it means I play really consistent and when I was in trouble I handled it pretty well,” she said. ”That’s my goal. I aim for the bogey-free round all four days.” If Ryu keeps it up over the weekend, she’ll have a good chance at winning her first tournament since the Jamie Farr Toledo Classic in 2012. With eight top-10 finishes this year, including a tie for fifth at the U.S. Women’s Open, she hasn’t been far off. Despite her victory drought, Ryu tries not to complain or worry. ”I’m happy to be just travelling all around the world,” she said. ”I’m really happy to show my golf swing and my golf game to all golf fans. The thing is to not really think about the result thing. I’m playing golf and I’m happy.” Ryu ”absolutely” is happier when playing the kind of golf she has over the past couple of days. ”So Yeon is probably making everything she looks at,” said Cristie Kerr, who shot a 4-under 68 Friday to get to 9 under. She was the champion the previous time this tournament was in London in 2006. American Brittany Lincicome, who was a runner-up to Inbee Park at last week’s LPGA Championship, had the best round of the day with a 65 to move to 8 under. Lincicome said her confidence level was ”really high.” ”I felt really confident when I stepped on the first hole,” she said. ”It was a very smooth day and it was nice to get some putts to fall.” Joining Lincicome at 8 under were Lizette Salas, Lindsey Wright, Mi Hyang Lee and Xi Yu Lin. One of the last players to tee off Friday, Kang saw Ryu’s 15 under and didn’t let it bother her. Instead, she watched the leaderboard with delight thinking about what she can do on this course. ”That tells me that there are birdies out there,” said Kang, who borrowed defending champion and friend Lydia Ko’s ball marker after forgetting her own. ”You just got to go by the scoreboard, the scoreboard tells you everything you need to know.” Like a lot of players, Choi wasn’t focused on others’ performances before she teed off. The 2012 U.S. Women’s Open champion also took a different approach Thursday night after shooting a 64. Choi stressed about her driver after shooting a 70 Friday to tie Nordqvist for second. It’s her hope that fixing a left hook in her swing can help her stay in the hunt. Kang, a 21-year-old from San Francisco, is in contention and feeling confident going into the weekend. ”There’s a lot of people contending, and there’s a lot of birdies out there and everyone’s shooting low, so you’ve just got to keep making birdies,” she said. Note: American Jessica Korda had a hole in one on the eighth, drilling an 8 iron from 147 yards from the tee. She shot a 70 to get to 4 under through two rounds.
Rory McIlroy isn’t divulging what is on his list of seven goals for 2015 that he jotted down on the back of his boarding pass on a flight to Dubai last week. Completing a career Grand Slam at the Masters in April? Surely that was No. 1. A court case against his former management company, scheduled for February, is also a defining early year date for the world’s top-ranked player. Winning this week’s Abu Dhabi Championship may not have been on the list, but it would end years of frustration for McIlroy at what has become his traditional year-opening tournament. McIlroy has finished second at Abu Dhabi Golf Club in three of the last four years. On two of those occasions, he was hit with rule penalties that ultimately cost him victory. ”One of the goals this week is just to have no penalty shots when I don’t need them,” he said. ”And see where I end up at the end of the week.” Losing out to Spain’s Pablo Larrazabal in a thrilling end to last year’s tournament was one of the few regrets for McIlroy in a stunning 2014. He won the British Open and the PGA Championship to double his tally of major titles, returned to the top of the rankings, and was one of the stars of the European team that retained the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles. McIlroy wants more. ”I didn’t achieve everything that I wanted to last year,” he said. It has become something of a ritual for him to write down his objectives for the season on his boarding pass on his flight out for his first tournament of the year. He puts the list in his wallet and memorizes it. ”I’ll take that boarding pass out at the end of the year and see how well I’ve done,” McIlroy said. ”I feel 2014 has really set me up for another great year. I’m coming in with a nice little bit of momentum, and (my) game is feeling good.” With McIlroy having had a month off, his rivals in Abu Dhabi will hope Boy Wonder is rusty. It is another strong field, with No. 2 Henrik Stenson, U.S. Open champion Martin Kaymer, No. 6 Justin Rose and American star Rickie Fowler – making his debut in the desert – among the other entries. McIlroy and Fowler are in the same group for the first two days, marking the first time they have played together since the singles at the Ryder Cup. McIlroy put on an awesome performance that Sunday, winning 5 and 4. Kaymer is a three-time winner (2008, ’10 and ’11) in Abu Dhabi, and was one stroke off first place in 2009. The German is one of the few players to have a better record on the course than McIlroy, who was third in 2010 and tied for fifth in 2009 before his run of runner-up finishes. ”It’s a golf course I’ve always felt comfortable on, one that has suited me, and I have played well here,” McIlroy said. ”This is my eighth year in a row starting the season off here, so I’m pretty familiar with the place, and looking forward to another strong start to the season.”
KAPALUA, Hawaii – Thirty-two players, no cut, idyllic views of the Pacific Ocean, it’s tough to consider anyone a loser at the year’s first event, but Cut Line dug deep into the island sand to deliver the calendar’s first edition. Made Cut Changing priorities. There was a time, not that long ago, when the year began with a quiet rustle instead of a big bang. A time when the top players avoided the Hyundai Tournament of Champions like the dentist office. But this week’s event features the best field at Kapalua since 2005, when then-world No. 1 Vijay Singh was joined by Nos. 2, 3 and 4, Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen, respectively. Top-ranked Jordan Spieth led the infusion of star power this year and he’s joined by six of the top 10 players in the Official World Golf Ranking at the Plantation Course. For this new generation, what had been a bye week has been transformed into a must-play stop, with only four winners from last season skipping the year’s first event, and this goes deeper than an affinity for sweeping vistas and wide open fairways. For Spieth and Co., the Tournament of Champions is a reason to get excited and reflect on the essential fact that a tee time at Kapalua is a reward for winning, not a burden. “This is one that we strive to make each year, and if I am eligible to play in this tournament and I’m not, I hope every single one of you [media] calls me and bashes me for it,” Spieth said this week. It’s a refreshing take, but let’s just hope it doesn’t result in a change of heart down the road and an overloaded voicemail. Reed on. In his last seven global starts Patrick Reed has finished inside the top 10 on six occasions, a run that dates back to his tie for third at the Hong Kong Open in October. For all the heat Reed took following his declaration at the 2014 WGC-Cadillac Championship that was a top-5 player, he has certainly played like a top-5 in recent months. Reed will always be a difficult study, he savors the competition but not the celebrity and is reluctant to play the media game, but his play – which is what should define every player – is ready for Broadway. On Thursday at Kapalua, Reed was paired with Spieth and calmly eagled the last to take a one-stroke lead. Back-to-back victories at the Tournament of Champions will not move Reed into that coveted top 5 in the World Golf Ranking, but it certainly gives the golf world plenty of reasons to take notice. Tweet of the week: Would rather this year not end…— Jordan Spieth (@JordanSpieth) January 1, 2016 Actually, the world No. 1 sent that missive on New Year’s Eve, but after starting the new calendar with rounds of 66-64 for the early lead, it’s clear that it may be a New Year but it’s the same old Spieth. Made Cut-Did Not Finish (MDF) Match madness. Second-year Tour player Justin Thomas raised a few eyebrows this week when he said on Golf Channel that he’d rather win a Ryder Cup this year than a major. While Thomas’ take was surprising it’s not at all misplaced given the current Ryder Cup environment. Given the U.S. team’s eighth loss in the last 10 matches in 2014 in Scotland, the sweeping changes made by the Ryder Cup task force and Tiger Woods’ early commitment to be a vice captain, it’s clear the passion on the U.S. side has never been higher. “The new guys certainly have that attitude. They want to be on a winning Ryder Cup team,” said this year’s captain Davis Love III. “Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed, they have been on a team and not won. They want to be on a winning team.” Love also pointed out, “I bet with nine holes to go, a two-shot lead at the Masters, [Thomas] might not want to trade for a Ryder Cup win.” A tough Day. Armchair quarterbacks are part of sports, but armchair bodyguards are a bit much. Jason Day returned to work this week at Kapalua and was asked about an incident that occurred during the Cleveland Cavaliers game in December when LeBron James ran over Day’s wife, Ellie. Ellie Day was taken to a local hospital and released the next day, but the real action occurred on social media as many questioned Jason Day’s decision not to protect his wife. “People that think I should have jumped in front of Ellie; they must have the fastest reaction time,” Day said. “I’m not going to stop a 260-pound guy that’s 6-8 running full speed. Ellie took it like a champ.” For Day, hitting a 300-yard 3-wood to a tucked pin is easy compared to sitting courtside at a Cavs game. Missed Cut Who Els? In golf, it’s a word that simply can’t be washed away and it is discussed only in hushed tones. On Thursday at the South African Open Ernie Els succumbed to the yips, again. Els, who has been beset by putting woes in recent years, missed the hole on an 18-inch putt on Day 1 in South Africa. He missed a similar putt during last year’s Dunhill Links Championship and conceded that he did not want to watch the miscue afterward. Some, however, have no problem coming to terms with the yips. Following an opening-round 70 at Kapalua, Padraig Harrington admitted that he struggled with the yips in 2012. “If you have it, you have it. That’s the way it is. And you know what? It will never be the same. You’ll never be the same once you had it,” Harrington said. Turns out some scars don’t heal. Anchors away. This week’s stop in Maui marks the beginning of the no-anchoring era in golf and on the PGA Tour, not that anyone seemed to notice. There are few players who have recently used an anchored putter playing this week at the Plantation Course, and maybe the narrative changes over the next few weeks when the likes of Tim Clark and Carl Pettersson make their way into a brave new world, but the lack of attention paid to this week’s deadline is telling. Although the change caused plenty of reaction when it was first proposed, the utter lack of fervor this week reinforces the adage that time can dull any passion. It’s worth noting only because the general perception is the USGA and R&A are reluctant to dial back the golf ball or modern driver for fear of the ensuing blowback. For those who would like to see further equipment rollbacks, this week is proof that, with time, anything is possible.
DORAL, Fla. – Whatever your preferred standard of measurement – Big Three, Fantastic Four, Fab Five, Sensational Six – they’re all assembled. Jordan, Jason, Rory, Rickie, Bubba . . . even The Donald. Well, the potential Commander In Chief and current Candidate In Course Owner won’t show up at Doral until Sunday, but if the week goes according to script, Trump won’t be the only topic of interest when Doral hosts what could possibly be its final PGA Tour round. For the first time since last September, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy – Nos. 1, 2 and 3, respectively, in the Official World Golf Ranking – find themselves on the same tee sheet, and for just the second time on Tour, the threesome will be grouped together. “The next two days are going to be enjoyable. It will be good out there, hopefully a little bit of buzz around that group,” McIlroy said of the potential heavyweight title bout. As compelling as that three-ball may be, it’s the undercard that makes the WGC-Cadillac Championship the year’s most anticipated event to date. While the basic narrative of Jordan, Jason and Rory remains the same, the broader ensemble has spent the last few months chipping away at the Big Three’s exclusive club. Enter the Fantastic Four. With his victory two weeks ago at Riviera, Bubba Watson reminded everyone that he might not be the most consistent player but that he is arguably the most entertaining, and his third-place showing at bomber-friendly Doral last year suggests he’s much more than a bit player in the larger scheme. Then again, Bubba isn’t interested in the added attention. He’d rather be left out of the discussion. “No, it doesn’t bother me at all. Like I said, I play a lot better when the media is not asking me questions,” Watson said. “At the end of the day, it’s not about what people say about me. It’s what’s in my head. I’m trying to get better at the game of golf, trying to get better at the game of life. So I’m not worried about Big Three, Big Four, Big Five.” WGC-Cadillac Championship: Articles, photos and videos Of course, Watson prefaced his answer by interjecting, “It’s ‘Big Four’ now because of Rickie [Fowler].” Ladies and gentlemen, the Fab Five. Fowler has been elbowing his way into the conversation for two years now but raised the stakes with his victory over Spieth and McIlroy in January at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship and his runner-up showing at the Waste Management Phoenix Open last month. Fowler has as many worldwide victories (three) as Spieth the last three months and, by his own assessment, is a major away from officially joining the game’s marketed elite. However many more you include atop golf’s billboard depends on your point of view. Dustin Johnson, winner of last year’s WGC at Doral, has been consistent but not clutch when he has needed to be on Sunday; his closing 69 two weeks ago at Riviera serves as his most recent crunch-time lapse. Adam Scott has emerged from what some predicted would be a career nadir with a runner-up at the Northern Trust Open and a win at the Honda Classic. “Sometimes when you’re starting further down the list, you’re more driven to kind of get back up to the top, and I’m kind of on that path again like I was maybe a few years ago,” Scott said. However many seats there are at the big table, and however reactionary the obsessive desire to label has become, having all of the principals in the same zip code for a week is a reason to take notice. Not that the game’s top players need extra motivation. “I don’t think any of us are buying into any added motivation or excitement based on a pairing. I don’t think we would at any point,” Spieth said. “For me personally, I would say, sure, it’s going to be a lot of fun, because I enjoy playing with both of them. But I don’t think anyone’s buying into the Big Three, because I’ve spent a good amount of time on this stage saying that I don’t think that’s a necessary comparison when you look at the Big Three from the past.” The members of golf’s most exclusive club seem to find incentive elsewhere. “There’s going to be a lot of people out there. I’ve just got to try to get in my own little world out there,” said Day, who in 16 rounds at Doral has only two rounds in the 60s. “I really want to play well this week. I don’t know if it’s the last — is it the last time we’re going to be playing here at Trump? I’m not sure.” With Cadillac ending its sponsorship of the Miami stop this year, the future for Doral depends on the circuit finding a new title sponsor willing to share the spotlight with Trump – which is proving more difficult than one would think. But if this is Doral’s exit from golf’s top stage, at least there is an all-star cast, however many may be in that group, to send it off in style.
Lizette Salas made a bold crossing in the Twitterverse the day after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. She reached outside her usual golf focus in that space to make her disappointment known in the election results. First, she retweeted actor Chris Evans’ strong statement on election day (Nov. 8). This is an embarrassing night for America. We’ve let a hatemonger lead our great nation. We’ve let a bully set our course. I’m devastated.— Chris Evans (@ChrisEvans) November 9, 2016 And then Salas added her own feelings a day later. After last night, this country isn’t what I thought it was. I ask that the whole world pray for the citizens who still believe in morals— Lizette Salas (@LizetteSalas5) November 9, 2016 There were a few other tweets and retweets during those two days, but Salas quickly moved back into the place she’s more comfortable, back into life as a tour player. But with Salas leading the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open going into Sunday’s final, her opinions on matters outside golf are suddenly newsworthy again. She’s the child of Mexican immigrants and proud of her heritage. She opened herself to political questions with her public tweets, and Australian media obliged. After Saturday’s round, Salas was asked about her level of “discomfort” with “the change” in the American government. “That’s a really hard question,” Salas said. “I like to stay away from politics. I know I have expressed how I felt, and I think everyone is entitled to express that. There is going to be a lot of change, but I think our country is ready for it. I think we can come together and become stronger. “But as far as my opinion about our new president, I don’t really have anything to say.” Salas was thrust into political debate during Trump’s presidential campaign. She was besieged by a swarm of cameramen and reporters in Scotland two summers ago, with the Ricoh Women’s British Open being played at Trump Turnberry. Trump’s much ballyhooed arrival on the property via helicopter came shortly before Salas finished the first round. After signing her scorecard that day, Salas was peppered with questions about what she thought of Trump’s controversial comments on illegal immigration, on Mexico “not sending its best,” but sending “people who have lots of problems,” including “rapists.” Salas handled the media onslaught in Scotland with admirable grace, with a diplomat’s deft touch. “I’m not a politician,” she said in Scotland. “My job is to win golf tournaments. “Everyone has a right to say what they feel. That is what’s great about living in the United States. I’m happy to be the child of Mexican immigrants, and I’m proud of my heritage.” Salas is likely to face more questions like these, especially when she plays her way on to leaderboards, and especially with the U.S. Women’s Open scheduled to be played at Trump Bedminster in New Jersey July 13-16. For now, Salas’ focus is on winning in Australia. Her strong family ties are there for everyone to see. Her father, Ramon, is there with her. She would love to win her second LPGA title for him. When Salas broke through to win for the first time at the Kingsmill Championship three seasons ago, her father couldn’t be there. “He was watching on the television,” Salas said. “So this would mean a lot. To bounce back from the year that I had last year, it would mean a lot.” If you know Salas’ story, you know the strength of her bond with her parents. She got her start in golf when her father struck a deal with the head pro at Azusa Greens in suburban Los Angeles, where she grew up. Ramon was the head mechanic of the Azusa Greens grounds crew. When Ramon did some personal work for the pro there, instead of accepting payment, he asked if the pro could give his daughter lessons. When Salas traveled the Symetra Tour after a stellar career at USC, she did so with her father, in his Toyota pickup truck. They spent more than one night sleeping in rest areas. Salas is living the American dream for more than herself, for more than her parents, she will say. “When I was younger, I thought I was at a disadvantage because of where I grew up and what I didn’t have,” Salas once said. “But looking back, that is what made me who I am, and I’m very proud of that. Now, I’m in a position to help grow golf in Mexico and the U.S. I want to help grow the game, to get kids to play the game.”
ORLANDO, Fla. – For three days William McGirt’s phone was quiet. He’d waited a lifetime for this opportunity, politely sidestepping the occasional offer, but always hopeful that his time would come and he’d walk to the first tee at Augusta National Golf Club with a purpose. Rob Chapman – a longtime member at Augusta National – had offered for years to take McGirt to play the storied course. “I told him that if he asks me [to play] then I’m not going to turn it down, but I really don’t want to go until I have a reason,” McGirt says. “I didn’t want to go down and play Augusta National just to play Augusta National. I wanted to have a good reason to go play and take it all in and learn as much as a I could.” On June 5, 2016, McGirt outlasted Jon Curran with a par at the second playoff to win the Memorial in his sixth full season on the PGA Tour. After more than a decade of trial and largely error, the 36-year-old was bound for Augusta National as a Masters rookie. He waited three days for Chapman’s call. “He called me and said, ‘Well, is that a good enough reason to go to Augusta?’” McGirt laughs. “He said, ‘We don’t open until Oct. 14, but we can go any time after that.’” Masters Tournament: Articles, photos and videos Since then, McGirt has made the 3 1/2-hour commute down from his home in Boiling Springs, S.C., to Augusta, Ga., three times, careful he says not to wear out his welcome but regular enough to realize it was all worth the wait. In some ways the drive to Augusta has been cathartic, a vivid reminder of what it took to earn his coveted spot in next week’s field. He’d made similar drives hundreds if not thousands of times to nondescript mini-tour events all over the Southeast. From 2004 to ’09, McGirt was a mini-tour staple, playing wherever and whenever he could. “For three or four years, if there was a mini-tour event being held I was there,” he remembers. “It was nothing for me to go to Jacksonville [Fla.] to play a one- or two-day event on Monday and Tuesday and then drive eight hours to go play Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Go home on Saturday and Sunday and then do it all again the next week.” Before making it onto the Web.com Tour in 2010, he crisscrossed the south in an old Honda Passport, putting more than 100,000 miles on the car before it went “belly up,” his dream of someday playing the Tour far outlasting the auto industry’s best technology. Journeyman really doesn’t do McGirt justice. At 5-foot-8 he’s not exactly the model of the modern professional and consider that the web site for his alma mater, Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., lists the likes of ESPN announcer Wendi Nix and MSNBC host Craig Melvin among that school’s notable alum. There is no mention of McGirt. “Not surprising,” he laughs. While last year’s Memorial Tournament was McGirt’s 165th Tour start, he estimates he played well over 200 events on an assortment of mini-tours before that. It was apropos that it was at the 2015 Memorial when McGirt turned to swing coach John Tillery for help. He has always been a gritty competitor and a true clutch putter, but he needed to hit the ball higher if he was going to compete on courses like Muirfield Village and even Augusta National. “He was kind of boxed in a corner. There are only so many courses on the PGA Tour you can compete on hitting it that low,” says Tillery, who explains that McGirt went from an apex height of 84 feet with his driver in 2015 to 101 feet this season. Last season was McGirt’s best year on Tour, by far, and included his first trip to the Tour Championship and starts at three of the year’s four majors, all thanks to his victory at Jack Nicklaus’ place. But since Chapman called last June it’s only been one tournament that’s dominated his competitive thoughts. Growing up in the south young players don’t sit on practice greens rolling in putts to win the U.S. Open or PGA Championship. There’s always a green jacket at the end of that 5-footer. “The Masters is part of our lives forever. It has so much mystic when it’s right down the road growing up. For us it’s the grown-up version of the Magic Kingdom,” Tillery says. For McGirt, that bond began in 1988 when his father took him to the Masters for the first time. The 8-year-old watched Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer play the 18th hole, scurried around Amen Corner to cheer on Lee Trevino and eventually made it to the first tee. “Greg Norman was teeing off on No. 1 and I couldn’t see and there was this guy who had to be 6-foot-6 and he put me on his shoulders so I could watch him tee off,” McGirt says. “Just a random guy.” McGirt admits that if officials at Augusta National would have let him he would have spent the three weeks leading up to the Masters playing the course every day, learning every mound and subtle break. “You see so much on TV, but there is so much stuff you just can’t pick up. Like on No. 1, you never know there is so much slope on that green. I never knew there were three little mounds in front of the second green,” he says. After a professional lifetime of toil, the father of two admits that it won’t be the iconic drive down Magnolia Lane or even the thrill of setting out for his first competitive round at the Masters that he’s been looking forward to the most since his victory last summer at Muirfield Village. If he’s going to become overcome with emotion it will be on Wednesday when his family joins him for the annual Par 3 Contest. “Miles [his son] has watched all of his friends caddie in the Par 3 and he looked at me and said, ‘Daddy, when can I do that?’ I’m like, ‘Buddy, daddy’s got to win first and trust me, I’m trying,’” McGirt smiles. “If I’m going to lose it, it’s going to be on Wednesday with them. It’s special to hear your name on the first tee at Augusta National, but being able to take your two kids out and play nine holes in the Par 3, I don’t know that there’s anything much better than that.” Of the 94 players currently in the Masters field there may be some with better pedigrees then McGirt, but none with more passion or purpose when it comes to the year’s first major.
IRVING, Texas – Jordan Spieth has plenty of great memories at the TPC Four Seasons, and he was hoping to make even more this week at the AT&T Byron Nelson before the tournament moves next year to Trinity Forest south of downtown Dallas. Instead of his dream scenario – standing on the 18th green Sunday with a trophy at the event he’s attended since he was a little kid – Spieth missed the cut for the second straight week. He will have extra time this weekend to figure out his putting woes before defending next week at Colonial. “I felt like I really needed to make a move today or would fall pretty far behind, and just tried to do it in the wrong ways,” he said after signing for a 5-over 75 to miss the cut by a stroke. “It just set me back a little bit.” Spieth opened with a 2-under 68, and his second round started with plenty of promise. He dropped a 10-foot birdie putt on No. 1 to reach 3 under, but then he gave it right back with a bogey on 2. And thus began the theme of his day. Spieth made four bogeys and three birdies on the front nine, and then his round came unraveled with a quadruple-bogey 9 on the par-5 16th. Sensing he was falling out of contention, Spieth tried to give his drive a little extra mustard so he could go for the par 5 in two. Instead he blocked his tee shot right into someone’s backyard. “I’ve hit in those houses before, I think a couple times,” Spieth said after his round. His second tee shot met the same fate. “Are you kidding me?!” Spieth said after his third drive found the right rough. “I made five bogeys in the round through my first 12 holes, which is just ridiculous out here,” Spieth said. “Then I still had a 9 on 16. So many over-par holes and not necessary. Trying to do too much. Trying to move up the leaderboard instead of just letting it come to me on this course.” The Dallas native made his Tour debut at the 2010 Nelson when he was a junior in high school. As the reigning U.S. Junior Amateur champion, Spieth tied for 16th in his first PGA Tour start. Surprisingly, it will remain his best result in this event for at least another year. “Yeah, a bit shocking that’s how it happened, and I still feel like the game is in a good place,” he said. Spieth was quick to remind everyone what happened the last time he missed two cuts in a row. During his historic 2015 season it’s easy to forget he started the FedExCup Playoffs by missing the cut at The Barclays and the Deutsche Bank. He got back on track with a T-13 at the BMW and then captured the Tour Championship for his fifth win of the year. During that run, Spieth seemed to drain every putt he looked at. But just as Michael Jordan didn’t hit every game-winning shot, Spieth’s putting has cooled off recently. For the third time in his career, Spieth switched putters, benching his Scotty Cameron 009 – the flatstick he’s used for all 12 professional wins – for a T5W mallet. Despite logging plenty of hours on his short game with coach Cameron McCormick, the new wand didn’t rekindle his silky stroke at the Nelson. “It’s kind of a thing in my head,” he said. “I got to get a couple to go in … and didn’t quite happen.” But Spieth isn’t hitting the panic button as he heads into the heart of a busy stretch of events. His run of four straight tournaments continues next week at Colonial, followed by the Memorial at Jack’s house. Spieth will then take a week off before heading to the U.S. Open at Erin Hills. “I’m not far off,” he said. “I really don’t think so. Doesn’t look like that on paper but feels very close.”
SOUTHPORT, England – Pete Cowen will explain that Henrik Stenson has three distinct swings – good, very good and excellent. “Two of those [good and very good] he doesn’t like to accept,” Stenson’s longtime swing coach explained following the Swede’s victory last year at The Open. Stenson is a perfectionist, driven to exceedingly high levels by the notion that mediocrity is not an option even though he’s playing a game that is often decided by the thin margins between good and great. Last year Stenson was perfect, at least by any reasonable standard, on his way to his first major victory over Phil Mickelson at Royal Troon, where he closed with a 63 in what was among the greatest major championship duels. He hit 11 of 14 fairways, 16 of 18 greens in regulation and needed just 27 putts, but even that performance comes with an asterisk when Stenson strolls down memory lane. “It was certainly a standout in terms of how we played, but also how I putted that day,” he said. “If I would have hit the same amount of shots, but I wouldn’t have rolled in as many putts from 10, 15 feet, obviously the score would have been a whole lot different.” It’s not as though Stenson is naturally a negative person. It’s just his standards have always been set ridiculously high and that’s not always a good thing. The Open: Full-field tee times | Full coverage Following his tie for 26th last week at the Scottish Open, Stenson was downright dismissive of his chances of defending this week at Royal Birkdale. “It’s always that battle and I don’t feel I have enough game to play the way I want to, and as soon as you go into practice mode you are losing the possibility to play your best,” he said on Sunday. On Tuesday, his outlook was slightly more upbeat but was still a telling example of how hard the world’s eighth-ranked player can be on himself. It’s been that kind of year for Stenson. Outside of a runner-up finish to Sergio Garcia at the Dubai Desert Classic in February, he hasn’t contended and he begins this week after missing five of his last seven cuts on the PGA Tour, including missed weekends at the year’s first two majors. The double-edged benefit of holding one’s self to such a high standard is that there’s no room for complacency, but there’s also precious little space for anything approaching a benefit of the doubt. “Henrik is a perfectionist,” Cowen said. “Can you play at your best all the time? Who plays at their best all the time? The only person that I know that does that is Usain Bolt, that’s why he wins everything. Winning majors is not easy.” For most players, winning a major at age 40 would have been a license to savor the fruits of decades of work. Henrik isn’t most players. Getting on the Grand Slam board only spurred him to want to do it again, replacing the pressure to win his first major with an even higher standard of collecting more before his career is over. “Once you win one, obviously that’s off your shoulder,” he said. “And it’s more about putting yourself in contention again and trying to win a second one. Given how long and successful a career I’ve had, I think that’s pretty much what we’re aiming for, a few more chances to win more major championships. That’s really where that extra spark can come from.” Predictably, Stenson has spent this week grinding on the practice tee with Cowen, but then he would be doing the same thing even if he’d won his last three starts. For Henrik, the struggle is real and the search never stops. He can take some competitive solace from last year’s championship, when he admits he also wasn’t feeling great about his game. He can also take into account his history when he commits to a links fortnight. Twice in the last four years he’s played the Scottish Open the week before The Open, in 2016 and ’13, when he finished first and second, respectively. In ’14 and ’15 when he skipped the Scottish he finished in the middle of the pack at The Open. “For me it’s crucial, both to play the week before the major is ideal for me, and also playing links because you just get in kind of that mindset of where you’re going to land the ball and playing the three-quarter shots in the crosswinds,” he said. Or, if Stenson is truly in need of a paradigm of hope heading into his 13th Open he can consider the finality that this week brings. Winning his first major brought a host of new media duties and unfamiliar attention, which only served to remind him of what he’s capable of doing if only he could perform at his absolute best week in and week out. “I feel like it’s a little bit easier to turn the page and look ahead, rather than speaking about what happened three, six, nine, 12 months ago all the time,” he admitted a day after handing the claret jug back to the R&A. “That’s kind of where I feel I’m at.”
SOUTHPORT, England – There was a brief moment of suspense Saturday, a few seconds when Jordan Spieth’s shot into the 18th hole at Royal Birkdale hung up in the cool, damp air and drifted right, destined for the bunker. Matt Kuchar had just cut into his deficit, again, and now he seemed on the verge of seizing the momentum after his approach skirted past the cup and rolled 10 feet away. Spieth looked disgusted with his second shot. He started walking after it, head down, and was genuinely surprised to hear the cheers of the capacity crowd. His ball had somehow crept over the bunker and settled atop a little knob, 20 feet from the cup. “I was happily shocked,” he said. It was the kind of little break that Spieth has gotten all week, but the reason why he’s in control of this 146th Open Championship, the reason why he’s just 18 holes away from capturing the third leg of the career Grand Slam, is that he has capitalized. Eyeing up his birdie putt, there was little doubt about the outcome. “That one just felt good looking at it,” he said. “With a few feet to go, it was going to go in. It was a good feeling.” Even better was what happened next. Kuchar’s putt from close range caught the left edge of the cup and stayed out, and just like that Spieth had turned what looked like a one-shot lead into a three-shot advantage on Kuchar and a six-shot cushion on the rest of the field. “I’m extremely pleased,” said Spieth, who shot 65 and is at 11-under 199. “I couldn’t ask for much more.” And so here comes the moment Spieth and every golf fan has been waiting for ever since he rinsed two shots in Rae’s Creek 15 months ago. It’s another lead at another major, another opportunity to show that scar tissue can heal, another chance to prove that he won’t be defined by the worst nine holes of his career. The Open: Full-field scores | Live blog: Day 3 | Full coverage Eight of the last nine occasions that Spieth has held the lead on the PGA Tour, he has gone on to win. The lone exception, of course, was the final round of the 2016 Masters, when he took a five-shot lead at the turn and wound up three shots behind. The collapse dogged him all year, and he understandably grew irritated at the constant reminders. That he didn’t factor in a major the rest of ’16, and then squandered another chance at a green jacket this April, only fueled the talk that part of his mystique had been lost. On Saturday, though, when he was inevitably asked about Augusta, he offered one of his most thoughtful answers to date on the topic. “I’m in a position where it can be very advantageous, just everything I’ve gone through – the good, the bad, and everything in the middle,” he said. “I understand that leads can be squandered quickly, and I also understand how you can keep on rolling on one. “So it was a humbling experience that I thought at the time could serve me well going forward. If I don’t win tomorrow, it has nothing to do with that – it has to do with it was someone else’s day, and I didn’t play as well as I should have. And if I win tomorrow, it has nothing to do with that, either. You’re learning, and it all goes into the mental process.” Spieth has won four titles worldwide since the ’16 Masters, most recently in his last start at the Travelers Championship, where he won for the first time, he said, feeling uneasy with his putter. All of those experiences will prove beneficial on Sunday, as the 23-year-old attempts to become the second-youngest player in the modern era (behind only Jack Nicklaus) to capture three majors, but Sunday at The Open will be his biggest gut check yet. Working in Spieth’s favor is that no one has been in this position more often over the past few years. He has held at least a share of the lead at a major 13 times since the beginning of 2015 – six more than any other player. All of that big-game experience is invaluable, especially compared to Kuchar, who at age 39 is playing in a Sunday final pairing at a major for the first time. Spieth has grown comfortable in an uncomfortable setting. “It’s a different feeling,” he said, “and one that’s harder to sleep with than the other way around because you feel like you’ve got to almost change the way you do things. You almost see the finish line, and you control your own destiny. Sometimes that can be a big thing on your mind, versus I need help and I’ll just go out there and try to play well. … But I wouldn’t rather be in any other position than where we’re at. We have an opportunity to have a really special day on this golf course tomorrow, and I’m excited about it.” His position seemed precarious during the final hour of the third round. Kuchar trailed by two shots for much of the day but finally pulled even on the 15th green. Spieth’s 60-footer for eagle had raced by the cup, leaving a tricky putt with the hole cut on a crown. “A scary one,” he said. But Spieth sank the putt and looked directly at caddie Michael Greller as he pumped his fist. His lead soon ballooned to three shots, after Kuchar made double bogey on 16. Kuchar got up and down on 17 to trim Spieth’s lead to two, but he couldn’t answer the dagger on the last. “That’s expected with Jordan,” Kuchar shrugged. There went any Open suspense. It’s closing time for Spieth.
ATLANTA – At precisely 4:24 p.m. ET the season of synchronicity reached its undisputed apex, the confluence of convoluted math and an endearing friendship. It was Brooks Koepka who set the stage for the year’s ultimate conclusion with a birdie at the 13th hole to move into a tie for sixth at the Tour Championship. It’s the butterfly effect, only with calculators. While Koepka was only remotely in contention for the title at the finale and not even in the FedExCup conversation, his late charge slightly altered the points so that Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas were projected in a tie for the lead in the season-long race. JT vs. Jordan. Jordan vs. JT. It was only apropos that the 2016-17 season would come down to such a potentially dramatic and anticipated finish. Spieth with three victories and a major (The Open) and Thomas, a five-time winner including the PGA Championship, had spent the entire year one-upping each other and building on a friendship that began over a decade ago. “I laughed when I saw it,” said Thomas of the tie that was projected on leaderboards across East Lake. “I thought honestly, this probably will happen and the golf world will completely blow up and lose its mind if Jordan and I were in a playoff for the FedExCup. I don’t think anybody would have known what to do with themselves.” In a fitting piece of foreshadowing, Spieth wondered earlier this week what it would be like to have to wait and watch as others decide your competitive fortunes, like then-points frontrunner Dustin Johnson had to last year at East Lake. Tour Championship: Articles, video and photos Final FedExCup Playoff points standings “It’s tough,” he said on Tuesday. “I mean [Johnson] is sitting there not able to control a $7 million difference, like that doesn’t happen anywhere else. It’s like having a $7 million bet on a fight that you’re not even taking part in.” Instead, this particular convoluted fight featured a cast of eclectic characters. Throughout all of its iterations, there has been a single unchanged theme to the playoffs – it takes a village to crown a FedExCup champion. If Koepka was the one who tempted us with a possible $10 million showdown between Spieth and Thomas, it was Kevin Kisner’s birdie at the sixth to temporarily move into the lead by himself that propelled Spieth into the projected points hot seat. Forty-five minutes later, it was Tony Finau’s birdie to close his week that prompted an equally dramatic flip, with Thomas moving into the top spot. You get the idea. A game that invests so much in individual accomplishments turns into a crowd-sourcing experiment at the circuit’s big finish, and it was no surprise that it was the play of those on the periphery that had such an influence on the outcome. Within an eight-minute window, Paul Casey, the overnight leader who struggled to a closing 73, and Kisner found the water with their tee shots at the par-3 15th hole and both made bogey, a twist that began to bring some much-needed clarity into the picture. Throughout it all, Spieth – who began the week first on the points list – sat helpless as the scenarios and situations dictated his emotions, but it didn’t take long for his fate to be sealed. Less than 20 minutes after finishing his round, the last remnants of hope faded into the humid afternoon when Thomas birdied the 17th hole to take a share of the lead. “I almost cheated my way into winning the FedExCup,” Spieth figured during what amounted to a concession speech with Thomas and eventual winner Xander Schauffele still on the course. Instead, it was Thomas who had the longer wait after wrapping up the season-long title with a par at the 18th hole. From there, the Tour Championship came down to the presumptive Player of the Year vs. the presumptive Rookie of the Year. Schauffele, who just three months ago was grinding away hoping to secure his Tour card for next season, made birdie at the last hole to become the first rookie to win the Tour Championship. But if the 23-year-old’s victory was something of a surprise to casual observers, it fit perfectly with his own tempered expectations for this week. “I just feel very fortunate to even be here really starting off the week,” Schauffele said. “I was just happy to walk around the property, the Tour Championship, last 30 guys in the field. It was a very eerie vibe walking around and I just felt very lucky and here I am talking to you so I feel even luckier.” For just the third time in the playoff era that began in 2007 the winner of the Tour Championship didn’t also take home the season-long trophy, and although his competitive zeal is quickly becoming legendary, Thomas took no small amount of solace in the $10 million consolation prize. “Feels very weird,” said Thomas, who finished alone in second for his 12th top-10 finish of the season. “It’s odd getting something so tremendous, one of my best achievements in my career without winning a golf tournament, so it feels different but it’s still great.” That Thomas likely wrapped up the Player of the Year Award on Sunday should also help soften the blow of coming up short at East Lake. Nor can one ignore the significance of how the season ended, with the game’s two most consistent players battling until the very end with the high school Class of 2011 – Schauffele is also a member of that class, it should be noted – proving yet again how special and potentially historic this group can be. As has become the status quo at the Tour Championship, the circuit’s finale is often a complicated collection of cause-and-effect relationships. Koepka birdies the 13th hole, two of the game’s titans are poised for a showdown; Finau birdies the 18th hole and Thomas readies for an eight-figure payday. Confusing? No doubt. But don’t let the math or method detract from what was by any measure an epic season and ending by two singular players, even if it didn’t finish with an Internet-breaking showdown.