Jordan Spieth silences his doubters at The Open – including himself

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SOUTHPORT, England – It wasn’t Jean van de Velde standing in the burn at Carnoustie, but it was no less outrageous – Jordan Spieth perched atop a dune glaring into a cold rain.

This is where major championships go to die.

Although Spieth was trying as best he could to see a line to the 13th green, and minimize the damage of a drive that ended up closer to the practice tee than it did the fairway, he may as well have been watching the claret jug slipping away into the gloom.

Van de Velde went on to lose that 2006 Open in spectacular fashion, whereas Spieth’s finish was even more remarkable and completed a wire-to-wire victory that was far more eventful than anyone could have imagined just 24 hours earlier.

“Give me a round number,” Spieth shouted to his caddie Michael Greller from atop the hill adjacent to the 13th fairway. Two holes later, he was once again barking at his trusty bagman, “Go get that,” he defiantly yelled after his 70-footer for eagle trundled into the hole, the emotional extremes telling you everything you needed to know about the 146th Open.

History will recount that it was that eagle, or maybe the birdie putt at the 16th hole or the tee shot that never left the flag at No. 14 for a bounce-back birdie, that won Spieth his third major; but that ignores the unsightly significance of his bogey on the 13th hole.

In his prime, Stewart Cink once described Tiger Woods’ Sunday style with a lead as a prevent defense, a give-them-nothing-but-take-everything sort of deal.

Outwardly, Spieth may not have the same 1,000-yard stare, but the internal burn to chip away at the competition is no less intense. It was the plan when he began the final day at Royal Birkdale – kill ’em with pars.

But this wasn’t like that, at all. This was more heavy lifting than a heavyweight bout, with a gritty texture befitting this Liverpool suburb.

That fairways-and-greens blueprint didn’t survive the first hole, which Spieth bogeyed. He chopped up the third and the fourth to drop into a tie for the lead with Matt Kuchar, and when he added another at the ninth – he’d penciled in just four bogeys total through his first 54 holes – the free-fall was in full flight.

Things move at 100 rpms on a Sunday with a major title onthe  line, and when Spieth’s drive sailed some 100 yards right of the short stuff at No. 13 the wheels were visibly spinning.

Over the course of 20 surreal minutes Spieth consulted with one rules official, then another. He herded the massive crowds this way and that, and paced around like a madman before finally coaxing a 3-iron short of the green and getting up and down for an all-world bogey.

“From there he did what he’s always done, he just grinds,” Greller said.

This wasn’t the 2016 Masters, when he squandered a five-stroke lead with nine holes to play, or even the ’15 Open when he finished a shot outside a playoff following a bogey at the 71st hole. This was much-needed proof, to himself if not the entire world, that he could be the closer he’s always aspired to be.

Spieth joked that he would have gladly traded his lively day for a more mundane, 17 pars and a birdie 69, but then that wouldn’t have had the same significance. Spieth needed this victory, warts and all.

Always an active mind, the doubts arrived early on Sunday for Spieth. He’d just blown a three-stroke lead before the turn and the internal dialogue was hard and harsh.

“I thought before the round, I thought I have a reputation as being able to close, but I was hesitant in saying ‘majors,’ to myself,” Spieth conceded. “During the round today I definitely thought any kind of fear or advantage that you can have in this moment over other individuals, not just Matt Kuchar today, but other people that are watching – that’s being taken away by the way that I’m playing right now.”

Spieth, who turns 24 on Thursday, now has the chance to become the youngest player to complete the career Grand Slam at next month’s PGA Championship, the kind of lofty accomplishment that’s not lost on one of the game’s most astute students. But on Sunday as the rain pelted Royal Birkdale and his gaze drifted toward the claret jug, that wasn’t the history he was interested in.

He’d said on numerous occasions that he’d moved on since that ’16 collapse at Augusta National, but players say a lot of things. It’s a competitive firewall to keep talents like Spieth from venturing too far down the rabbit hole.

With apologies to the sports psychologists of the world, there’s no room in golf for self-examination when your next round could just as easily be a breakthrough or breakdown, depending on the outcome.

But then Spieth isn’t your normal champion and as things started to unravel early on Day 4 the déjà vu must have been deafening.

“He’s heard a lot since that ’16 Masters and I’m sure somewhere in there some doubts crept in, but he just said I know how to do this,” Greller said.

Most players wouldn’t admit to such doubts, but then Spieth isn’t most players. On Sunday, he conceded he was uncomfortable to start the round and only slightly less uncomfortable after scrambling for bogey at the 13th hole. More so than the elements or a demanding links, it was those emotions and how he dealt with them that was so rewarding. It may have been Kuchar who he beat by three strokes, but it was the scorecard against an assortment of doubts and demons that will resonate long after he leaves England.

“Closing today was extremely important for the way I look at myself,” Spieth said.

On a wild day along the Irish Sea, Spieth proved to everyone, including himself, that he’s a fighter, a closer, a champion.

Akshay Bhatia: The confidence of a young Tiger and the game to back it up

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There’s only one thing that the number one junior golfer in the world, Akshay Bhatia, admits he can’t do.

He doesn’t know how to put contact lenses in. 

The 17-year-old, who currently resides in Wake Forest, North Carolina has unwavering confidence in just about everything else.

His resume of tournament wins doesn’t hurt: he’s won the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley, the Jones Cup, and back-to-back Junior PGA Championships, where he shot a 61, his career low in a competitive round. In addition, the teen recently became the youngest player ever to be named to the United States Walker Cup team. 

Upon first glance, there is an uncanny resemblance between Bhatia’s swing and that of a golfer whose name may sound familiar.

Tiger Woods.

Both stand around six-feet tall and use their long limbs to generate speed. Bhatia is fully aware of the similarities. 

“I mean, he was skinny, he was tall, he was lanky. Some things I do better than him, and some things he’s done better than me, but it’s definitely pretty similar,” said Bhatia. “Tiger obviously hit it far when he was young and the clubs were different and whatever but, just the speed I’m able to create, the way I use the ground, [swing coach George Gankas] is pretty impressed with that.”

The ease with which Bhatia measures his swing against Woods’ may be shocking, but it also demonstrates a level of self-confidence that is vital for success on the PGA TOUR and reminiscent of a young Tiger’s attitude. 

The day before Woods’ own professional debut in 1996, he told Curtis Strange in an interview, “I’ve always figured that, why go to a tournament if you’re not going there to try and win? There’s really no point in even going.” Strange laughed off the bold comment.  “You’ll learn,” he scoffed. 

Bhatia’s ambition has helped him rise to the No. 1 ranking on Junior Golf Scoreboard and No. 4 in the World Amatuer Golf Rankings. However, he will fall off both of those elite lists very soon. 

The teen plans to forgo college and make his professional debut at the Safeway Open in September. According to Bhatia, a solid foundation of self-belief will be the real key to a successful professional career. 

Alongside Bhatia throughout his journey to junior golf domination has been Gankas, who many would describe as the most popular, yet unconventional swing coach in the game right now. 

The combination of Gankas’ eccentric personality and his ability to add upwards of 10 miles per hour to many of his students’ swing speeds has attracted 168,000 followers to his Instagram.

“I’ve just surrounded myself with a lot of great people, and George especially,” said Bhatia. “He’s always helped me so much on what I should be feeling when I’m not playing well and if I’m feeling great then you know, there’s something I always want to work on because I get bored sometimes when I’m playing so well.”

Apparently, Bhatia’s non-stop practice grind, which includes three to four hours of putting daily, is not always enough to keep him on his toes. 

“I’m just like George, I need to do something, I need to work on something,” Bhatia joked. 

Gankas is the coach of PGA Tour break-out star Matthew Wolff and the mind behind a new golf slang, in which “scoobie snacks” and “scwamdowed” are words of encouragement. 

“Matthew Wolff, one of my friends, and he goes to George as well, he’s said the same thing: as long as you believe you can be out here, and you can win and you can prove it to yourself, the sky’s the limit,” said Bhatia. “A lot of us juniors and college players are taking over the PGA Tour right now. For me it just shows if they’re capable of doing it, there’s no reason I can’t.”

Bhatia trusts that he can mirror what the current PGA Tour rookie class has accomplished this season.

“I know I can shoot very low. I’m capable of holding off players when I need to do it,” said Bhatia.

If Bhatia continues to go through his young career with the self-belief and ambition that he has now, there will undoubtedly be critics. However, as players like Woods, Brooks Koepka, and Wolff have demonstrated, valid self-confidence makes all the difference.

The professional golf world does not know what’s coming for them this September when Bhatia rolls up, thick-rimmed glasses and all.

An Inside Look as the Open Returns to Royal Portrush

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Before Augusta National’s “Amen Corner” there was “Calamity Corner,” the renowned 16th at Royal Portrush Golf Club’s Dunluce Links.

This week, golf viewers around the world will get to know this hole as the Open Championship makes its epic homecoming to Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951. 

Royal Portrush’s Head Professional for the last twenty years, Gary McNeill, has extremely high expectations for the anticipated 148th Open.

However, the course that players will face starting Thursday morning does not look exactly like the track that McNeill and the rest of the Portrush community have cherished since its inception. 

In order to accommodate the influx of fans expected by the R&A each year at the Open, the Dunluce has had to undergo some major alterations. The only space large enough for the required spectator village was the land occupied by the original Harry Colt-designed 17th and 18th holes. 

Although the final two holes held a special place in Portrush’s history, the members were willing to build two new holes, slotted in as the 7th and 8th, which borrowed land from the club’s second course, the Valley Links. Other notable renovations include two new bunkers on the 1st and a new championship tee box on the 14th, making the hole 80 yards longer. 

“Everything that Martin Ebert, the architect, has done is very much in keeping with what was already here,” said McNeill. “It just feels like the course is almost a better golf course with the addition of the two new holes.”

The old 17th and 18th holes were situated on a relatively flat piece of the property and “didn’t have a lot of character” McNeill explained. The new 7th and 8th holes, on the other hand, boast sweeping undulations that run throughout the fairways and greens and are located in one of the most scenic sections of the golf course. 

Another picturesque hole, the 5th, named “White Rocks,” is a 380-yard downhill dogleg par four, featuring three new fairway bunkers, including two that are about 300 yards from the tee, strategically placed to catch wayward drives. The real danger, though, lies behind the green. The tiered putting surface slopes away from you, toward the daunting cliffs of White Rocks beach. A treacherous out-of-bounds line is only a few paces off the back of the green. 

“During the championship they will play the players up a bit, to entice them to have a crack at the green. It’s what the R&A look upon as a ‘risk and reward’ short par four where there’s a bit of entertainment for the spectators,” said McNeill. “If they get a hard bounce, or catch some of the slopes there, they could run out of bounds over the back. We anticipate that there will be quite a bit of drama on this one.” 

Royal Portrush’s most famous hole, the unnerving par three 16th, fittingly named “Calamity Corner,” will prove to be drama-prone as well, especially during the Sunday finish. Measuring at a lengthy 236 yards, it is played over a “very deep chasm which lies between the tee and the green and on the right-hand side,” said McNeill.

To the left of the green is a shallow swale, a sort of safe-haven for players who either unconsciously or consciously choose to guard against the danger to the right. In the 1951 Open, Bobby Locke purposefully played to this area each day of the championship and made an up-and-down par each time, giving the corner a title that stuck: Bobby Locke’s Hollow. 

Will players be happy to walk away from Calamity Corner with a par? “They’d be delighted,” McNeill emphatically remarked.  

Like at any traditional links course, the swirling coastal winds will play a major factor. But Royal Portrush takes this challenge to a new level. 

“There are no two holes that consecutively run in the same direction,” explained McNeill. “You are constantly dealing with winds coming from different directions.”

As a whole, Portrush is known to be a driver’s golf course. In order to attack pins on the Dunluce’s many elevated greens, it is imperative to be playing from the manicured fairways. 

The rough, on the other hand, is nightmarish. According to McNeill the tall grass is “particularly penal this year. It has been unusually warm through the winter and the spring months so it’s a little juicier than it normally would be at this time of year.” 

Whose game will fit this masterfully crafted puzzle-like links? 

McNeill has his eye on the 28-year-old Englishman Tommy Fleetwood, whose accuracy off the tee could give him a great shot at being named this year’s Champion Golfer of the Year. 

“Tommy Fleetwood is a great driver of the golf ball and he’s been knocking on the door at the US Open on tough golf courses, where the premium is very much on driving the ball in play.”

McNeill noted that the Portrush community has a great deal of confidence in Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, and Darren Clarke, three Northern Ireland natives. Additionally, Brooks Koepka’s caddie, Ricky Elliot, grew up playing Royal Portrush. 

“Ricky knows this golf course very well and Brooks – there’s not many players playing better than him now, particularly in major championships,” said McNeill. 

When the Claret Jug is raised Sunday evening in the shadows of the Dunluce castle ruins, golf viewers will all be hoping it does not take another 68 years for the Open Championship to make another swing through this dreamscape on the coast of Northern Ireland.