No Land of Confusion for Dustin

19 February 2017
PGA Tour

Superman where are you now / When everything’s gone wrong somehow

The men of steel, the men of power / Are losing control by the hour

Dustin Johnson did not have these words from Land Of Confusion by Genesis in his head during the first three rounds of the Genesis Open at Riviera, shooting 66-66-64 to set up an imperious lead, but the mundane level par final round of 71 can only be explained by a man tormented by the voice of Phil Collins in his head over every backswing and missed putt. The tournament record of -20 was under threat when Johnson reached that score after six holes of the final round, but 1980’s pop music took over and eventually dragged Dustin back to -17, still five shots ahead of Thomas Pieters and Scott Brown. Or, the more likely explanation for the +3 return for the closing ten holes is simply that Dustin was so far ahead of the nearest challengers (nine shots at one point) that the procession inevitably became absent of the spark that had marked the first three rounds, fatigue also playing its part noting the 36-hole Sunday finish necessary due to the weather delays.

DJ led the field for the week in driving distance, strokes gained off the tee and GIR, a formidable combination and ominous for the year ahead. The dominant victory, perhaps overdue given his excellent prior record of five top-five finishes at the iconic Pacific Palisades course just off Sunset Boulevard, is more impressive given the career milestones that come with it. DJ is now only the fourth player to win at least once in every year of his first ten seasons on the ‘modern’ Tour, joining the most elite company possible in this bracket: Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. Not to mention the win has also given DJ the number 1 slot in the world rankings for the first time.

Swinging like Superman, putting just as brilliantly, he is a man of steel and power, but he is also a man of composure, calm and control. The recent Golf.com article on DJ revealed one particular story that I found fascinating. The morning after the 2015 US Open at Chambers Bay, DJ got up early for a round of golf with family friends as if nothing had happened on the final green the previous evening. Come to think of it, as he walked off the 18th green that day carrying his five month old son Tatum, he had probably gotten over the disappointment by the time he reached the scorer’s tent. Such is DJ’s attitude to life since his late 2014 sabbatical, it seems he has found the ultimate formula on and off the course and this means he could be a difficult man to shake off the top of the world rankings.

So to the weekly “how many majors will he win” discourse. The problem with DJ, Spieth, McIlroy, Day, Garcia, Stenson, Matsuyama, Rose, Thomas, Mickelson, etc etc, being top players in good form and with major winning credentials is that there are only four majors per year and they cannot all win them all. We have already heard mentioned several times this season that certain players “should” win majors. But there are only four of them a year and look at the above list of players. Look at some of the others not in that list (Fowler, Scott, Rahm, Pieters, Reed, etc etc). DJ has finished T6 and T4 in his last two Masters, but prior to that he has struggled to feature at the business end of things around Augusta. I suspect he will be thereabouts this time around, but I do not see him separating himself from the field. Augusta is just too tricky and in any case Jordan could have it won by Friday evening. Erin Hills however looks very much like a DJ course – Whistling Straits meets Chambers Bay perhaps – so I expect him to put in a strong defence of his title in Wisconsin. To The Open, whilst he has shown that he can golf his ball around links tracks before, I think that local knowledge could prove vital on this occasion. It will also be interesting to see if DJ plays in the European Tour links events in the weeks before The Open. Either way this one is not straight forward to assess. Finally the PGA, DJ has chosen to skip the regular Tour stop at Quail Hollow in the last few years, so without a form guide it is difficult to assume he will run riot at a track that so many of the top players will know inside out in tournament conditions. That’s not to say the major week set-up won’t be different and of course he has game and form that can deal with any circumstance right now, but this is hard to sustain and golf course familiarity can be decisive when it comes to the big weeks. In summary, I like him very much for the defence of his US Open, maybe a sneaky top-five at Augusta, but beyond that I am looking elsewhere.

Scrambler Pick – Honda Classic at PGA National: Last week I implored you to put your house on Charles Howell III at 66/1 for an each way windfall. Charlie put in a valiant effort, finishing T15 at -8, just three strokes back of the each way payout, but close is not close enough when you need a professional golfer to pay for your weekend beers. Stick with me though, there is a big one coming. We are getting close. T36 to T15 to a bonanza week next week. Your ticket to the Honda bonanza is right here. The Florida swing begins at Palm Beach Gardens and the ‘Bear Trap’, a course that can be brutal and punishing. Winning scores at PGA National have been single figure under par numbers in all but two of the last ten years. In fact only four players in total have managed to record -10 or better for the week in the last decade and three of them occurred in 2012. In 2015 and 2008 the winner came home in -6 for the week and in 2007 it was one lower at -5. My man for the week is Luke Donald at 55/1. T23 and T17 in the last couple of events and a course that suits his strategic nous. His rally back into the world’s top fifty is about to gather a new increased pace. Go with Luke. He also won this event in 2006 albeit that was at Mirasol the year before the tournament moved location. I am also going to take advantage of Soren Kjeldson at 200/1. He has struggled to perform on the PGA Tour the last few weeks, but he is too good to keep down and I think a tough test such as this will bring him back to the mix.

 

Jordan Big Tops The Circus

12 February 2017
PGA Tour

Jordan Spieth won his ninth PGA Tour title at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am on Sunday, returning a bogey-free final round of 70 to post an overall total of -19 and a four shot margin of victory over Kelly Kraft, with former winners Dustin Johnson (-14) and Brandt Snedeker (-13) behind in third and fourth spots respectively. With this victory, ‘Heir Jordan’ jumps to 3rd in the 2017 FedEx Cup standings and becomes the second youngest player since WWII to win nine times on the PGA Tour (behind only Tiger Woods) and the player with the joint most number of wins on Tour in the span since 2013 (tied with Jason Day).

Jordan had produced some promising signs recently, beginning the year with consecutive third place finishes in the two Hawaii events, followed by another top-ten in Phoenix, but nobody should be surprised if Jordan turns up and wins whatever his form. His previous results at Pebble had been encouraging and this week he inevitably secured another one of his bucket list titles. All facets of Spieth’s game are in formidable shape, but the putter remains the ultimate decisive weapon, the lengthy birdie attempt holed on 17 to effectively put the win beyond doubt being a prime example, followed by the arguably even more impressive longer attempt on the 18th that just shaved the edge of the cup. Jordan expects to make make putts from anywhere and is one of the few players who consistently sends his ball rolling with that threatening ‘go-in’ look. When Jordan gets to the Augusta press room I hope that when fielding the inevitable questions regarding number 12 that he plainly responds: “if I play here like I have played here before then I have a great chance to win”. He is the favourite at Augusta by miles and miles.

As for the tournament itself, the circus referenced above is to highlight the travesty of what should be one of the most enjoyable spectator events of the season overshadowed by the wearisome fiasco that has become the Pro-Am. The antics of Bill Murray are just not funny anymore (actually they never were) and any professional who tells you that playing with high handicap amateurs does not distract them is lying. Staging a tournament on three different courses with a final day cut in the professional event in itself creates a disjointed format and would not be necessary in a standard tournament format. Similar to the annual European Tour tournament with St Andrews as its focal point, the obvious argument in its favour is that celebrities playing with pros is good for the profile of the sport. The organisers will argue that the amateurs are under instructions to pick up and get out of the way if they have taken too many shots and are delaying the progress of the hole. Some of the celebrities also use their involvement in golf to raise money for charity, which is obviously great. But, still, this is an era in which the golf authorities are actively trying to speed up the game, get more people watching and get more people playing. I fail to see how Bill Murray dressed like and acting like a clown along with six hour rounds of golf are going to achieve this. What spectators really want is to watch great golf being played by the best players in the world Thursday to Sunday. Wednesday is Pro-Am day and that is how it should stay.

If they are going to continue with the Pro-Am format I would propose a different set of rules where the celebrities would be at most ‘senior-scratch’ level, i.e. maximum handicaps of 5. This would keep the likes of Justin Timberlake (4), Kenny G (4), Andy Roddick (3), Jake Owen (3) and Kelly Slater (3) involved, whilst eliminating the ridicule brought to the table by hackers such as Ray Romano, Bill Belichick, Condoleezza Rice and Bill Murray. Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Andy Garcia and Kelly Rohrbach are admirably all on the brink with handicaps of 7, but I am afraid that under my proposal this is still not good enough to co-exist with the best players in the world in a serious professional event where world ranking points, FedEx Cup points and careers are all at stake. If insufficient low-handicap celebrity players are around to fill the spaces, then fine – simply scrap the Pro-Am altogether and stage a proper tournament, the kind of tournament that the famous peninsula deserves. Speaking of which, a further point worth noting is that Pebble Beach will again host the US Open in June 2019, meaning that the top players may want to play in a competitive environment at Pebble Beach over the next couple of seasons. I would hope that a potential 2019 US Open winner is not discouraged from undertaking valuable groundwork by ‘Larry the Cable Guy’ and his hazardous slice. This week’s European Tour event, the The World Super 6 Perth, is an interesting alternative attempt at innovation in competitive professional golf and note that there is no reliance on celebrity tomfoolery to enhance the event’s appeal. We will see come next Sunday if the format achieves its objectives.

Scramble Picks – Genesis Open at Riviera: My last prediction for an outside each way windfall was Kyle Stanley in Phoenix. A T36 result was not embarrassing, but nonetheless a disappointing return. This week I am looking for Charles Howell III at 66/1 to do some damage high up the leaderboard.  He is in decent form following his recent second place finish at Torrey Pines and he won here at Riviera in 2007. You would be a fool not to.

 

Sergio By Night, Sergio By Day

5 February 2017
European Tour

Sergio Garcia had not played much competitive golf in the last few months before this week’s Omega Dubai Desert Classic. He appeared at just three events at the back end of 2016 in the aftermath of the Ryder Cup, finishing T19 at the CIMB Classic and T9 at the WGC HSBC Champions in October, followed by a T19 at the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai in November. Not spectacular results, but nonetheless almost $400k earned somewhat effortlessly in the process. Sergio could have been forgiven for delivering another casual, almost nonchalant top twenty finish here in Dubai again at the Emirates Golf Club in his first appearance of 2017, but rather than ease himself into the new year, the brilliant Spaniard decided to go wire-to-wire for his twenty-first career victory on the two big tours, holding off the challenge of Henrik Stenson.

On a first day when much of the focus was misdirected elsewhere, Sergio raced into the lead with a 65 and never surrendered it. Perhaps the conclusion of the third round was critical. In almost complete darkness on Saturday evening, Garcia, Coetzee and Elvira decided to finish the round and played the par five 18th hole with night goggles on. Keen to avoid having to return early on Sunday morning, yet not at the expense of dropping shots, the group went birdie-birdie-eagle in a remarkable scene against the backdrop of a spectacular Dubai night skyline. Garcia’s birdie gave him a three shot lead over Stenson going into the final round and he never really allowed Stenson to get too close on Sunday. After back to back birdies on the 13th and 14th holes had put Stenson within two strokes, Garcia replied with a sublime tee shot to two feet on the par three 15th, which, following a Stenson bogey on the same hole, gave Garcia a four shot cushion with three holes remaining. Work was still to be done, including a superb up-and-down on the 16th, but the two-shot swing on the 15th would prove to be the key moment of the back nine.

There are high expectations of Sergio. Some say he should have won more tournaments. Some say he should have won majors. Some say he will still win many more tournaments. Some say he will still win majors. I would agree with all of it. But the manner in which Sergio’s career has been covered in certain corners of the media raises a concern. We know he is good, just as we know other players are good, but why is there a need to psycho-analyse one of the best golfers of the last twenty years as if he has been failing in some respect? Winning golf tournaments is hard. Winning majors is even harder. There are only four of them a year. It has taken some of the greatest champions in the history of the sport a long time to make the major breakthrough. Some have never made it.

Sarah Stirk and Wayne Riley of Sky Sports have their own views, having apparently undertaken joint roles as Garcia’s psychologists. I had not realised this arrangement was in place. In a comical attempt at post tournament analysis, they seemed to be in a position to confirm that when Sergio was not playing well or winning tournaments every time he teed it up that it was because certain other players were “getting in his head” or because he was not engaged to be married. Would Sergio agree with this? Is this why he only finished tied for 19th place in his previous tournament? Have they asked him? Do they know what his actual psychologist thinks? Does he have one? What was going on with his head when he won all those other tournaments?

Then, in typically pointless fashion, Sarah asked Wayne “do you think Sergio will win a major this year?”. Wayne’s first answer was excellent: “do you want the lottery numbers as well?” and he should have left it at that. However, he then proceeded to undo his good work and claim that Birkdale would be Garcia’s best chance to win a major in 2017. Oh really? Is it because Sergio has finished T29 and T51 on the last two occasions The Open has been staged at Birkdale, despite having a significantly better record at most of the other venues on The Open rota? This is his year at The Open? It could be of course, but is Riley assuming that Sergio cannot putt on the Augusta greens? He has finished in the top-five at The Masters before, been in contention and shot plenty of rounds in the 60’s, so why would Augusta not suit him more than Birkdale? Especially if he putts on those greens like he putted this week. Has a tournament ever been played at this year’s US Open venue Erin Hills? Noting that the answer to that question is NO, then how do we know Birkdale will suit Sergio Garcia more than Erin Hills? By all accounts the long and firm set-up projected for this year’s US Open would seem to appeal to Sergio’s game. As for the PGA, Sergio has not won at Quail Hollow’s regular Tour stop, but he has gone as close as losing a playoff, which suggests that he knows his way around that track and therefore might just see the PGA Championship as just as much of a chance as Birkdale. True enough, Sergio loves The Open and The Open loves him, but I do not see how Birkdale specifically is Garcia’s “best chance” to win a major in 2017. His best chance is simply the next chance, which is in April at Augusta. This week in Dubai he was third in driving distance, second in driving accuracy, first in greens in regulation and seventeenth in putts per GIR. That to me suggests a game ready for anything and anywhere.

Rahm Full Of Memory

30 January 2017
PGA Tour

Jon Rahm may still have won the Farmers Insurance Open with a score of -11 had he three-putted from the back of the 18th green at Torrey Pines South Course on Sunday, however, when the monstrous 60-foot screamer eagle putt dropped, there was a palpable sense of deflation amidst the groups behind, as what had developed into an intriguing close to the tournament was abrubtly cut short by the Spaniard’s birdie-eagle finish. The toiling challengers, moments after undoubtedly hearing the huge roar from the 18th green, would have been flummoxed at the sight of Rahm’s name on the leaderboard jumping from -10 to -13 over his final two holes in what seemed like the blink of an eye. At the close of play Rahm’s round of 65 left him three shots clear of CT Pan and Charles Howell III, with five players languishing behind at -9 and five more at -8. Perhaps a couple of the challengers might have got closer to -11 had Rahm only parred the 18th, but with their fight extinguished by his final blow, all they could do was trudge their way home as Rahm began his celebrations.

Rahm had progressed steadily through the week with rounds of 72, 69 and 69 and was just about staying in contention entering the back nine on Sunday. He snuck a little bit closer to the lead with a birdie on the 11th, yet most of the focus still remained with other contenders in what was a bunched leaderboard. Then, after two blows to 18 feet on the shortened par five 13th hole, Rahm drained his 18-foot eagle putt and was suddenly a major factor. He parred the next three holes, hitting every fairway and green in regulation on the way, but without giving himself any particularly easy looks for birdie. Not content to par his way home, attack mode was set to ON again on the 17th, when another perfect tee shot set up a 144 yard approach to 5 feet duly converted, and now Rahm became the man to beat. Like many of the young stars on Tour, Rahm’s chosen strategy when leading was simply attack as the best form of defence, with the objective of giving himself a decent look for birdie on the 18th. Attack mode notwithstanding, his second shot to the back of the green was as much a percentage play as would have been a decision to lay up and leave a wedge approach to that treacherous front pin. It was a very strategically-well-played hole to that point, but what he did next will go down in Torrey Pines folklore.

It is no surprise that Rahm has made such a prompt ascent to the winner’s circle on Tour given his amateur career and results in professional events to date. For the 2016/17 season thus far before the Farmers, results had been robust, albeit unspectacular. A T15 finish at the Safeway Open in October was followed in November by T15 and T50 at the Shriners and Mayakoba events respectively. His largest cheque pre-Christmas came from representing Spain in the World Cup down under thanks to a T8 finish alongside Rafael Cabrera-Bello. Rahm’s first appearance in 2017 resulted in a T34 at the CareerBuilder, leaving him a respectable 67th position in the FedEx standings. A reasonable start, but this form slightly belied what Rahm had shown during the 2015/16 season in two events in particular. Following the US Open at Oakmont, where a T23 week gave him the title of low amateur, Rahm turned pro and immediately made an impact finishing T3 at the Quicken Loans National, a result that also re-qualified him for The Open at Troon (he had forfeited his spot by turning professional), where he was T59 in his first major appearance as a pro. A few weeks later, Rahm went one better and finished in a tie for 2nd at the Canadian Open. It was too late for Rahm to make the Playoffs, but he had laid down a marker with these significant performances. One would expect him to feature a lot more on final day leaderboards in the months ahead, but he will do well to surpass a finish as memorable as that of Sunday.

Rahm’s final round of 65 was the lowest round of the week on the South Course and the joint-lowest round of the week in the tournament along with Justin Rose, who shot 65 on the North Course on Thursday. The win catapults Rahm to 6th in the FedExCup standings and 46th in the OWGR.

Scramble Picks – Waste Management Phoenix Open: I am keeping it straightforward this week. Why look beyond Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Hideki Matsuyama (defending champ) and Jon Rahm. Ryan Moore is one to watch here and certainly Phil Mick cannot be ignored around Scottsdale. My outside shot for an up-and-down is going to be Kyle Stanley. Winner here in 2012; having a steady season to date; T14 last week at Torrey; I feel he is trending towards an each-way place which is surely worth a look at 80/1.