July 14, 2013

Evergreen Ernie Els can win again at Muirfield

The Big Easy, Ernie Els, could be on a late drive to greatness © Getty Images

I won't be alone in picking defending champion Ernie Els as my Open favourite at Muirfield. You need to be called Tiger Woods to enjoy that privilege with the bookmakers of course, but if that helps The Big Easy out to 25-1 I'm all for it.

Don't be fooled by his missed cut at Castle Stuart either. Els didn't impress there last year and look what happened the week after.

The case for a strong challenge from Els is compelling. An Open champion at Muirfield in 2002, he arrives in Scotland in fine touch and on the back of success against a stacked field at the BMW International Open in Germany. He also performed well at this year's Masters (T13) and US Open (T4).

And then there's the fact he heads into this year's Open with a calm that is reserved for those who have nothing left to prove - only further surprises to spring. Rory McIlroy is looking for answers; Tiger's quest for majors redemption won't be helped by his lack of tournament preparation; Phil Mickelson's US Open heartache surely lingers.

Els was a surprise winner at Lytham last year

Els has no baggage to check. His Open win at Royal Lytham last year was met as a big surprise. But if the majors really are the mental minefield we're told they are, then who more likely than golf's most horizontal hero to keep collecting them into his 40s?

"I really believe that I have a couple of majors left in me and I think I can keep going," Els told the Guardian recently. "I have got everything sorted, business and all that stuff so I can concentrate and play golf."

Els' haul of four already has him alongside Mickelson. If he wins at Muirfield, The Big Easy will draw level with the likes of Seve Ballesteros, James Braid and Byron Nelson on five. Suddenly Nick Faldo and Lee Trevino would be but one more win away at six. It makes you wonder if he gets enough credit.

Could we one day be talking about Els as one of the greatest 10 or 12 players to have graced the game? If he wins back-to-back Opens, as is entirely plausible, the weathered blonde with the smooth swing will take his reputation to new heights.

And should he indeed lift the Claret Jug again, it certainly wouldn't be a surprise this time around.

Happy Gilmore time

More props to the European Tour, who have enjoyed massive success in taking their product viral in recent weeks. First came Rory vs. the Robot, and now this excellent clip of Phil Mickelson, amongst others, doing the Happy Gilmore.

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July 7, 2013

Who'd make Europe's 2014 Ryder Cup team if it was picked today?

This man will be at Gleneagles whether he qualifies automatically or not © Getty Images

The qualifying process for Europe's 2014 Ryder Cup team begins at the Wales Open in September, with 2010 venue Celtic Manor an apt setting for prospective members of Paul McGinley's team to begin their quest.

McGinley has upped his wild card picks from two to three, matching the number that will be available to United States captain Tom Watson. That means nine players on each team will qualify automatically - in Europe's case through either world ranking points or Race to Dubai points (effectively Euros earned).

With that in mind, I thought it might be interesting to look at who would make Europe's automatic nine as things stand and which three players might attract McGinley's wild cards.

Race to Dubai Four

We go to the Race to Dubai money list first, where McGinley would inherit the top four European earners. Based on current standings, they would be Justin Rose, Graeme McDowell, Matteo Manassero and Sergio Garcia.

G-Mac is red hot right now

World Rankings Five

Next we go to the official world rankings. Ignoring the four who have qualified through the European points list, McGinley will be delivered the five European players scoring the most ranking points during the qualifying period.

As things stand, Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Peter Hanson would make it through that route.

From the automatic nine, only Italian youngster Manassero would go to Gleneagles as a Ryder Cup rookie.

Wild cards

"I very much hope there's going to be a Scottish element, particularly in the playing side," McGinley said in February. "The gauntlet I'd throw down is what we did when we played in Ireland (in 2006), which was 25 percent of the team."

Of the Scots in the reckoning, Paul Lawrie is the only option who'd come with Ryder Cup experience, having played in two and been part of the victorious team in 2012. He's also the defending Johnnie Walker champion, so a proven performer at Gleaneagles.

Scot Lawrie will surely be there next September

The question for McGinley would be whether to stop there, or take his Scottish quota higher by making a gamble. With Manassero his only debutant so far, I predict he'd take a risk.

A bold pick might be Stephen Gallacher, who has finished T6 two years running at the Johnnie Walker and has an excellent record at the 2014 host course. Gallacher has won on the European Tour this year, but his complete lack of majors experience has to count against him. That said, McGinley wants home players.

That leaves one spot open. Paul Casey's apparent return to form makes him a consideration, as does the fact he won at Gleneagles in 2006. Martin Kaymer of Germany is another with a strong argument.

But I might go for experience, in the form of 42-year-old Dane Thomas Bjorn, who won at Gleneagles just two years ago. Bjorn was a vice-captain in 2012 and knows the Ryder Cup inside-out. He's in fine form and would be another steadying influence in McGinley's team.


Rose (England, 6-3-0), McDowell (N Ireland, 5-5-2), Manassero (Italy, Rookie), Garcia (Spain, 16-8-4), McIlroy (N Ireland, 4-3-2), Westwood (England, 18-13-6), Poulter (England, 12-3-0), Hanson (Denmark, 1-4-0) , Donald (England, 10-4-1), Lawrie (Scotland, 4-3-1), Gallacher (Scotland, Rookie), Bjorn (Denmark, 3-2-1)

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July 3, 2013

Will Inbee Park out-do Babe, Tiger and Bobby Jones?

Will Inbee Park become the most dominant golfer in history? © Getty Images

Inbee Park is staring down golf history. The South Korean has taken the first three women's majors of 2013 and has two more to win to achieve the greatest individual feat the game has seen.

Women's golf needed a boost and Park is emphatically it. The 24-year-old was imperious in her march to US Women's Open glory. As reported by CBS, she hit 51 of 54 fairways and was a model of calm authority throughout.

It was Park's seventh win of the season and her third over four weekends. The obvious line is to suggest Park's dominant form in 2013 has been Tiger-esque, but she has the potential to go beyond anything Woods has achieved, even at his awe-inspiring peak.

Should Park win the Ricoh British Women's Open at St. Andrews she will become the first golfer, male or female, to win four professional majors in a year. In any other year that would be a Grand Slam, but the LPGA now have five majors on the schedule, with the addition of the Evian Championship.

It was a controversial decision to add the event in France this year, aimed at growing the women's game further. As it turns out, they may have grown it more by leaving the majors alone and watching Park win all four. Now they face the possibility that a Grand Slam in any other year will be denied.

Cue heightened debate over whether anything but four majors makes sense. Either way, women's golf will be given more column inches this year than it has in a long time. Park is the reason and she has a shot at the most remarkable of golf feats this year.

In the men's game, golf's fabled grand slam has never been done in the professional era. Bobby Jones won The Open, US Open and both amateur championships in 1930, but as an amateur never played in the US PGA Championship. He never won the Masters either.

Babe Didrikson Zaharias is the only other woman to win three majors in a calendar year. She did it in 1950, at a time when there were only three to play for, but while it's considered a Grand Slam there will always be those who undermine that achievement and look to four as the magic number.

Park can make it four at the home of golf, quite the setting for an iconic achievement. Her record of three top-10s in her last three British Opens suggests she stands a strong chance and her impressive ability to stay calm under pressure will help her cope with the weight of expectancy.

“She is one of those players who seems to play with a heart that beats 40 or 50 times a minute," said former LPGA player and two-time major winner Carol Mann.

Couple that with a adaptable game that keeps better and a putting stroke's Michael Bamberger calls "the stuff of dreams" and we appear to have a future legend in our midst.

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June 28, 2013

Rory McIlroy takes on trash-talking golf robot

Rory squares up to Jeff the robot, at PGA National in Florida © European Tour

If you haven't seen the clip of a nine-year-old Rory McIlroy chipping balls into a washing machine, this story starts here.

McIlroy was asked to recreate that appearance by host James Corden on League of their Own in 2011. You can watch how it turned out here.

Fast forward to 2013 and the European Tour took things a step further. Pitting Rory against a Golf Laboratory Computer Controlled Hitting Machine, at PGA National Resort in Florida, they set up a driving range of tricked-out washing machines for a novel challenge.

The robot, who introduced himself as Jeff, served up far more than just a perfect swing. As McIlroy prepared to hit targets he was subjected to a barrage of trash talk, prompting the Northern Irishman to double over in fits of laughter.

Watch as Jeff lands a ball inside a washing machine, setting off an excitable alarm to sound. "Is the same sound you heard when he signed your sportswear contract?" he says to McIlroy, referencing his gazillion-pound deal with Nike. Brilliant.

Back in the real world, McIlroy is in danger of missing the cut at the Irish Open, having opened with a sloppy first round of 74.

"The game is just not coming easy to me at the moment and while I was struggling at this point last year, I was able to turn the corner in the middle of the summer and have a great end to my season," he told reporters on Thursday.

Maybe he needs to ask Jeff for a little advice.

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June 24, 2013

5 clutch moments of bunker brilliance

Perhaps the most famous bunker shot of them all, Lyle at Augusta in 1988. © Getty Images

As thoughts turn to The Open, to Muirfield and its treacherous bunkers, this feels like a good time to revisit some of golf's most iconic shots from the sand.

What stands these apart is not just their skill of execution, but the fact they were played with high stakes and under intense pressure. Your average club golfer is happy enough to escape the sand; these men soared from it.

1. Sandy Lyle at the 1988 Masters

This year was the 25th anniversary of Lyle's iconic fairway bunker shot at Augusta. The Scot took a seven-iron and made the sweetest contact imaginable to send his ball above the flag and watch it track back down.

"Every time I play the hole, I look over there and shake my head," said Mark Calcavecchia, the man Lyle beat to the green jacket in 1988 by a single shot.

2. Tiger Woods at the 2002 US PGA Championship

Woods remembers this one as the best shot of his career, which is saying something. He didn't go on to win the US PGA in 2002, but his three-iron will go down in history as one of Woods' most implausible feats.

"It just felt like nothing, like when guys hit a home run, [or] describe a home run, how easy it felt, even though it went 460 feet," Woods said in an interview with CBS Sports. "It just felt effortless; that's how that shot felt. And I made the putt, too."

3. Severiano Ballesteros at the 1983 Ryder Cup

I've searched high and wide, but there is no clip to be found of Seve's famous Ryder Cup shot in 1983, which saw him pull three-wood from a bunker 245 yards out at the last. Here's the Guardian's late, great golf writer Dai Davies describing what happened.

"It was an impossible shot and it was greeted first with a stunned silence, and then by incredulous laughter that greets something that is outwith the experience of the watcher. It was, in the literal sense of the word, fantastic."

Seve somehow got down in three from the sand and managed to halve his match with Fuzzy Zoeller.

4. Zach Johnson at the 2012 John Deere Classic

Former Masters champion Johnson was into the second hole of a sudden-death play-off at the John Deere Classic. His drive found a fairway bunker, but the American summoned a moment of sand sorcery from 194 yards to make birdie at the 18th and claim the trophy.

5. Bob Tway at the 1986 US PGA Championship

Bob Tway looked like he might capitulate to Greg Norman in the final round of the 1986 US PGA, but he stole victory at the 72nd hole by holing out from the sand. It was just one of many heartbreaks for the Great White Shark.

Sports Illustrated's Barry McDermott wrote of Norman's year at the majors:

"He had let the Masters slip from his grasp, then the US Open, and now, in a year in which, with luck, he might have had a Grand Slam—as it was, he led all four majors after three rounds for a Saturday Slam—the Great White Shark was harpooned again."

Credit to lists compiled by Forbes, HK golfer, the Guardian and the US PGA Tour.

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June 19, 2013

Was playing the 2008 US Open Tiger's downfall?

Tiger Woods will miss the AT&T National with an elbow injury © Getty Images

When it comes to the majors, Tiger Woods is not the same golfer he was in 2008. His putting is looser, his shot-making diminished and his ability to coast through pressure while others capitulate is no longer the noticeable divider it once was.

Prevailing thought has it that the strife in his private life derailed his game and diluted the absolute confidence he once felt in it. So much has been said of the mental distractions, but perhaps Tiger's problems are more firmly rooted in the weakening of his physical powers.

Consider the evidence. The last time we saw Tiger win a major was at Torrey Pines in June 2008, where he survived on one leg to beat Rocco Mediate in a US Open play-off. That was the warring, fearless, smack-em-down Tiger of old. Who could forget the putt he sank at the last to stay alive?

It was a monumental victory, but there's an argument Tiger shouldn't have played at all. As recalled by this timeline of his injuries, Woods had knee surgery after the 2008 Masters and decided to go ahead and play the US Open despite a clear risk.

Familiar face: Woods in pain in 2008 on his way to US Open glory

The risk was real. And the price of lifting the trophy was yet more knee surgery and the rest of the season on the sidelines recovering. The frustration that brought an Achilles injury in December 2008, as Tiger hit the roads in an attempt to run himself into shape.

In 2011, three years and those infamous transgressions later, Woods was still struggling with knee problems and still troubled by that Achilles. He cited both as reason for not playing the 2011 US Open.

Carrying injuries like that puts additional strain on other areas of your body, which may explain the "bulging disk" (remember this) he suffered in 2010. It may also have something to do with the elbow strain he struggled with at Merion, that will see him miss the AT&T National.

There's a lot said about Tiger's confidence at the majors and it's clearly not what it was. But we might argue the belief he once had has been weakened more by the ravages to his body than his reputation. Injuries have robbed him of practice time and caused Tiger to play beneath his potential these past five years.

Tiger used to trust himself to sink every putt and make every shot. These days he can't even be sure his body will last a tournament.

Torrey Pines in 2008 was one of Tiger's defining victories, but it is reasonable to ask if he might be closer to Jack's 18 majors had he skipped that one on doctor's advice and avoided some of the injury problems that followed.

Who's next?

Turns out Adam Scott sent Justin Rose a text on Sunday at the US Open, telling his friend this was "our time". Makes you wonder who might come next in the about-time-he-won-one year we're having at the majors.

Muirfield, Scotland, is the next stop. Guess who bagged a top 10 last time the Open was played there? Sergio Garcia. Now wouldn't that be a story.

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June 17, 2013

Rose breakthrough can inspire a glut of English major success

Justin Rose's triumph at Merion could open the floodgates for English players at the majors © Getty Images

We knew Justin Rose had the golf smarts, composure and driving accuracy to challenge at Merion, but we also knew he was 15 years from his unveiling at the 1998 Open Championship and still not a major winner.

That kind of a wait breeds a suffocating doubt if you let it. Could he really win this one? Would he ever win one? Or was Rose's destiny just to be billed as part of English golf's under-achieving, majors-shy, golden generation?

Starting his round on Sunday, Rose was seeking to become the first English major winner since Nick Faldo at the 1996 Masters - a gap of 17 years and 68 championships, punctuated by countless near-misses and capitulations. For post-1966 English football at the World Cup, read post-1996 English golf at the majors.

Tiger has won 14 since Faldo last put on the green jacket, Northern Ireland four. Even Scotland have got in on the act. Yet somehow a nation blessed by the combined talents of Rose, Lee Westwood, Luke Donald, Ian Poulter and Paul Casey had gone empty-handed. Until now that is.

Rose stood tall in Philadelphia to triumph. He talked of the inspiration he'd taken from Adam Scott's breakthrough win at the Masters and fans of English golf will be hoping Rose can provide the same impetus for his fellow countrymen going forward.

Luke Donald's challenge faded at Merion

When Darren Clarke won the Open in 2011 he pointed to Padraig Harrington's three major wins as the catalyst for a golden era in Irish golf. "I believe he is the one who inspired Graeme McDowell first, then Rory McIlroy and then me to go on and do what we have done," Clarke said.

McIlroy was clearly inspired by G-Mac's US Open win in 2010 to win in 2011; South African Charl Schwartzel said the same of Louis Oosthuizen's Open win the year before he won the Masters. There's nothing like seeing a friend achieve something to realize it's possible to do it yourself - some of the fear is replaced by a hunger to emulate them.

Poulter, Westwood and Donald all took to Twitter to celebrate Rose's US Open in on Sunday night. All three should have at least one major of their own by now, but their frustrations will be refocused by what the 32-year-old Rose has achieved.

Not only is the English major wait over, but a group of extremely talented players will have new belief they too can make it happen on the biggest stage. Judging by recent trends and runs of nations at the majors, don't be surprised if we see another English winner before 2013 is out.

It could very well be Rose himself of course.

All hail Merion

Merion was a captivating venue for the 113th US Open. Some courses are just cheap-shot brutal for the sake of it, but Merion's test is so cleverly constructed that is delivers a layout that can be played in many different ways.

To have the winner at +1 tells you everything you need to know about the difficulty level. That the players came away having loved the course tells you we'll be back as soon as possible.

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June 12, 2013

Can Mickelson be Merion's rain man?

A Phil Mickelson US Open win would be hugely popular with home crowds © Getty Images

Phil Mickelson is the patron saint of US Open near-misses. Five times a runner-up, Lefty has flirted with the tournament like no other, yet his softest of hands are still yet to grasp the trophy.

Until now, Mickelson has had to make do with the consolation of being America's most beloved golfer (I didn't say popular) of his generation. Could this be the week that finally changes?

I'm tempted to say it can happen. Not only will Mickelson come off a good week at the FedEx St Jude Classic, but he'll be met by a soggy and more vulnerable golf course than we expected. We all know he can be wayward off the tee, but Mickelson in the right mood is capable of going after Merion.

I was wading through the mud at Bethpage in 2010 when he shot a brilliant 66 on the Friday to prompt a challenge. Mickelson, not for the first time, let things slip from there, but his ability to go low in wet conditions may bode well for the days ahead in Philadelphia.

As Luke Donald pointed out on Tuesday, rain will make holding greens at Merion easier and missing them not quite such a big problem.

The invitation to attack will be difficult for Mickelson to resist - especially armed with his (obligatory mention) genius short game. The question, of course, is whether Lefty can avoid the diabolical rough from the tee or whether his driving accuracy ranking of 160th on the PGA Tour will bury his challenge knee-deep in wild grass.

Mickelson in fist-pumping mood at Bethpage in 2010

Mickelson may allay some of those fears by leaning on his hybrid off the tee. Donald said he only used driver five times in his practice round, while Ernie Els suggested players could still make a slew of birdies at Merion this week if they chose irons over drivers.

Nobody on the PGA Tour has been better at making birdies than Mickelson this year (Stats here).

So let's say it happens - that Lefty ends his US Open hex and brings home a first major since his Masters win in 2010. Not only would American golf fans have the ideal man to celebrate Father's Day with (a father who delayed his practice to attend his daughter's graduation no less), but we'd be served a nice little plot twist with it.

Yet again, this is supposed to Tiger's redemption week. What a story it would be if his old buddy Phil stopped that happening. Forget about Tiger and Rory, or Tiger and Sergio, there would be no more compulsive viewing than us finally getting to see those two going at it late on a Sunday, at a major.

The smart money is still on Tiger, but my hashtag for Merion is #teamphil.

Outside bet

If you want to look outside the obvious, how about a small punt on Tim Clark? The South African drives like a demon and is another who performed well at Bethpage in 2010. Clark is around 80-1 with some bookmakers - not bad for a guy who finished 11th at the Masters just a couple of months ago.

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June 8, 2013

5 other pairings to watch at the US Open

Can G-Mac attack at US Open venue Merion? © Getty Images

Golf's most devoured duo, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, were always going to be drawn together at the US Open. Adam Scott's green jacket got him in on the act and all eyes will be on three men from three continents for the first two rounds at Merion.

In terms of pairings to watch, there's that one and then all the others. But that doesn't mean the others won't throw up their own intrigue. One of them may very well throw up this year's winner. Here are my 'other' groups to watch on Thursday, along with their tee times.

1. Ian Poulter, Boo Weekley, Jason Dufner - 12.55pm BST

Born-again Boo (pronounced "Booooooooo") was a winner at the Crowne Plaza Invitational and has made 13 cuts from 15 starts on the PGA Tour in 2013. Could this be the year we see an unlikely run at a major from one of golf's most unlikely stars? Ian Poulter, meanwhile, is struggling for form and will be looking for inspiration. Jason Dufner is in a similar position.

Matteo Manassero could be ready for a run at a major

2. Rickie Fowler, Matteo Manassero, Jason Day - 1.06pm BST

The obligatory young bucks group. Italy's great hope Manassero comes fresh off his win at the BMW PGA Championship, while Day will be looking to better his third-placed finish at Augusta. Fowler is due a strong run at a major - it's about time he delivered on his promise.

3. Matt Kuchar, Brandt Snedeker, Justin Rose - 12.22pm BST

American Kuchar is perhaps the hottest golfer in the world right now, having followed his runner-up finish at the Crowne Plaza with a win at the Memorial. At 34 he's entering the conversation for "best player who hasn't won a major". Rose is another in that category and has a precision game that could work at Merion. Snedeker makes it three fancied players in the same group.

4. Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel, Tim Clark - 12.33pm BST

This all-South African group carries its most obvious threat in Schwartzel and Oosthuizen - major winners who have both been playing consistently well all year. Could Clark be the relative old-timer (he's still only 37) who makes a charge? His accuracy off the tee makes him a potential contender at Merion, where finding fairways is vital.

Mr Steady from the tee, Jim Furyk

5. Jim Furyk, Graeme McDowell, Zach Johnson - 6.03pm BST

McDowell and Furyk are among the most accurate drivers in golf, which helps explain why both have a US Open title and makes both dangerous in Philadelphia. G-Mac's recent Volvo World Match Play triumph bodes well for his confidence also. Johnson went low at the Crowne Plaza, but doesn't typically do well at US Opens.

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June 4, 2013

The best of golf showboating on the internet

Phil Mickelson is quite the flopper © Getty Images

Time for something a little different. I could have gone at Tiger's ugly back-nine 44 at Muirfield Village, Matt Kuchar's major credentials, or the "only-in-golf" metal spike ruling that knocked Lee Janzen out of US Open qualifying, but sometimes we forget golf's about having fun.

This week is all about entertainment. In the course of the last year I've spent many hours trawling the best examples of golf showboating on the internet and I want to share my favourites with you. Sit back, relax, and be ready to be amazed.

1. Phil Mickelson's backwards flop shot - The stuff of golf viral legend, this ridiculous clip sees Lefty play the kind of shot that makes him a genius. Once you've watched it, search for more of Mickelson flopping over his coaches.

2. Bubba's banana shots - This CNN exhibition with Bubba Watson, post his 2012 Masters win, is must-see for all golfers who dream of the perfect draw and fade. Watson moves the ball on command in both directions, making the game look remarkably easy.

3. The world's longest par-three - Legend Golf and Safari Club in South Africa achieved a notable PR coup by unveiling a hole that plays 1,400 feet down from the tee to a green shaped like the continent of Africa. The reward for a hole-in-one is a cool $1 million.

4. Nine putts in one hole - Campbell University students hit the mainstream with their synchronised putting exploits recently. The video went viral and no doubt has golf groups all over the world trying to mimic it.

5. Top of the flops - Promising young American golfer Jon McLean scored two aces in nine holes in 2011. In 2009 he was recorded doing this...

6. The longest putt - Legend has it TV presenter Terry Wogan held the record for the longest televised putt before Dave Pelz sank this gargantuan beast in 2009. Pelz was dishing out putting tips apparently - this being a pretty good one.

The commentary here makes the clip. "This is over 200 feet of putt. That is longer than church on NFL Sunday." Indeed.

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