Team player: Tiger back and things have changed

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SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – For the first time in six years, Tiger Woods arrived at the Ryder Cup with his golf clubs.

No more earpieces.

No more two-way radios.

No more golf carts.

No longer relegated to the vice-captain position because of injury, Woods returns to his usual role this week as the most important American player.

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So much has changed since Woods’ last Ryder Cup appearance in 2012. His body has betrayed him. He’s endured humiliating performances on the course. He’s pondered a life without golf. But during all of that downtime, Woods has dedicated himself to an unexpected cause: team competitions. Criticized in the past for prioritizing individual over collective success, he’s played an integral role in blowing up the U.S. selection process as a member of the task force, then the Ryder Cup committee and finally as an assistant captain, in ’16.

“It was neat to be a part of the team, to be a part of helping the guys in any way I possibly could to make them feel comfortable,” Woods said, “but as a player, you focus on your playing partner you’re playing with and earning your point.”

As much as Rory McIlroy tried to downplay Woods’ influence by saying that he’s merely one of 12 here at Le Golf National, we all know better. Woods can only earn a maximum of five points for his team, but he’s worth so much more than that – capable of powering the U.S. to new heights with wins, while providing a boost to the Europeans if he falters.

This week will be a particularly intriguing moment in Woods’ career. No three players are as synonymous with U.S. futility in the Ryder Cup as Woods, Phil Mickelson and this year’s captain, Jim Furyk. Yet here they all stand, together, with a chance to end a quarter-century of misery on foreign soil. It’d be the perfect coda to Woods’ unimaginably resurgent season.

“Not having won as a player since 1999,” Woods said, “is something that hopefully we can change.”

It’ll start with Woods’ performance in the team sessions. Though his singles record is strong (4-1-2), he’s yet to find much success with a partner, going an abysmal 9-16-1 in fourballs and foursomes.

Gone is his usual match-play partner, Steve Stricker. In his place is a pair of 20-something dynamos, Patrick Reed and Bryson DeChambeau, who are sure to be wound tight while playing alongside their childhood idol.

Fortunately for them, Woods is playing his best golf in years. Last week at the Tour Championship, he not only won for the first time in five-plus years, but on Sunday he broke the spirit of Europe’s best players, leaving both Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose in the dust.

“It’s a nice boost for everyone, and I think for Tiger in general, it’s cool,” Furyk said. “But being a guy with his status and that number of wins, he can flip the page and turn his attention to this week. He’s trying to help this team as much as he can.”

There’s no reason to believe that his stellar play won’t continue here, as Le Golf National would seem an ideal fit for his revamped game. The tight, hazard-filled course will require few drivers off the tee, leaving Woods and everyone else to attack from virtually the same spots in the fairway. That plays exactly into Woods’ hands – he’s once again the best iron player on the planet.

What remains to be seen is how many matches Furyk will employ Woods. At 42 with a rebuilt body, Woods is no longer a lock to play all five matches, as he was in his prime. In seven career Ryder Cups, he’s played all but one of the team sessions – the only one he missed was at Medinah in 2012, when he said his back issues first started to surface.

But Woods’ improved health and brilliant play creates an interesting dilemma for Furyk: Can you really keep Woods on the bench for a team session if he’s one of the Americans’ best chances for a point? Or do you risk sending him out for all five matches, knowing that he’ll probably grow fatigued?

Of course, few could have envisioned this debate two years ago, as Woods zipped around in a golf cart, fetching sandwiches and extra towels for the players in his pod, his competitive future uncertain.

That’s not the case anymore.

He’s swapped out his walkie-talkie for a wedge.

With a new perspective and partner, maybe he’s ready for his best Ryder Cup performance ever.

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.