Different Strokes: Short game latest eye-catcher, Furyk's delayed triumph

Alex Dimond 22/04/2015
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Jordan Spieth, Jim Furyk and Bubba Watson feature this week.

In Sport360’s weekly golf column, Alex Dimond brings you a light-hearted look at the world of golf. In this article, Different Strokes focuses on the development of the short game, Jim Furyk’s delayed PGA victory and Bubba Watson’s latest antics away from the course. 
– UAE Golf- Joshua White named new ‘Golf in Dubai’ ambassador
– Different Strokes: Tiger Woods’ Masters renaissance could be pivotal
– Book: Golf online

Short game back as the main game

‘Drive for show, putt for dough,’ as the old golfing adage goes. It’s a catchphrase quickly learned by every junior golfer in every English-speaking country around the globe (and probably a few others, too). It’s the cheeky retort of the short-hitting plodder who holes that 15-footer to edge out his power-hitting opponent at the first extra hole of their summer knockout match.

It is golf distilled to its essence –  10-inch putt being worth just as much on the scorecard as a 350-yard drive.

But somewhere along the way the professional game had begun to lose track of that insight. Perhaps it was the fact that, to the untrained eye, every top pro on the PGA Tour putts and drives to a very similar standard. Jump on the range at any tournament and the flight of the balls feel more like a military gun salute than the results of 20+ individual players.

Perhaps its just a natural tendency, the human instinct that bigger distance somehow correlates to greater masculinity. Or perhaps it was the fact that the very top players, the ones who win most often, seem to share the same characteristic – they bomb it off the tee.

Current world No. 1 Rory McIlroy is one of the longest players in the game, while Bubba Watson has two Masters jackets in his wardrobe. Dustin Johnson, a huge hitter of the golf ball, has the longest active winning streak of any player (he was won a tournament in each of the last eight seasons). In the exploits of those three, and a couple of others, the message has suddenly changed: Hit big, win big.

In that light, perhaps Spieth’s victory at Augusta National will see a shift in how the top players develop their games, especially as far as the majors go.

Spieth does not hit the ball a long way, at least by modern standards, and his impressive shot-making ability is blunted somewhat as an advantage by modern golf club technology – which allows less naturally-gifted players to get away with much more than their brethren in previous generations (Sergio Garcia nods his head in frustrated agreement).
Spieth’s ability to shape the ball every which way still helps, of course, but it is not going to give him a four-shot advantage in the final round of a major.

What is going to do that, it seems, is a pinpoint short-game. If one area of Spieth’s game elevated him above the rest of the field at Augusta two weeks ago, then it was his touch around those famous greens.

The 21-year-old got up-and-down from the tightest spots – his chip from the side of the 18th at the conclusion of his third round a breathtaking example – and he holed nearly every putt he looked at from inside what most would call a makeable distance.

He is 65th on the PGA Tour in driving distance (25 yards behind Dustin Johnson), yet seventh in strokes gained putting (he was fourth until last week’s hungover performance at the RBC Heritage) and 17th in scrambling. In the FedEx Cup standings, of course, he’s No1.

Back when Tiger Woods was winning every other major, he was also perceived as one of the biggest hitters in the game (a perception he was often keen to promote, and one that perhaps led him towards a fitness regime that explains some of his more recent injuries). But it was actually his short game, specifically his putting, that so often allowed him to jump clear of the field – or stay at arm’s length once the lead had been secured.

Making birdies, after all, is one thing. Keeping them is equally important. It is double-edged sword, one Woods in his prime wielded with authority. It is still early, but Spieth seems to be similarly gifted.

Like Woods, Spieth also seems to have his course management under control (after Sunday’s final round at the Masters, he went on a 2,800-word monologue detailing each and every shot of his final round).

The Texan, like Woods, plays courses from back-to-front; working out where he wants to be on each green first of all, and then plotting from that where that means he needs to put himself in the fairway and what shot he needs to hit off the tee.

That strategy is worth far more than an extra 20 yards off the tee.

“Chicks dig the long ball,” as another adage states. But they dig winners even more. It might be early days, but Spieth’s triumph might see many top players re-evaluate how they look at their games over the coming months.

Jim’ll fix it (eventually)

In the four-and-a-half years since Jim Furyk last won on the PGA Tour, it’s safe to say that a sudden inability to stay loose down the stretch—or, to put it less tactfully, a tendency to choke—had cost him a few wins.

It cost him potential majors (the 2012 US Open), and a slew of regular tour events (perhaps most notably the 2012 Bridgestone Invitational). It even cost his country the Ryder Cup, as he somehow fell to singles defeat against Sergio Garcia during that capitulation at Medinah.

2012 may have been Furyk’s annus horribilis, but the funk continued long after. He finished runner-up a remarkable four times in 2014, and in February threw away the 54-hole lead at Pebble Beach in the AT&T Pro-Am. It was his ninth consecutive failure to win from such a position.

“I’m well aware,” Furyk said on Sunday, when asked about that streak. “I had to talk about it a lot over those years.”

So how did Furyk finally turn things around at the RBC Heritage – an event he labeled as his favourite outside the majors? It was ingenious, really; he got his choke out of the way early in the round.

Usually, in contention with nine holes to play, Furyk would tense up and fritter away shots. But on Sunday at Hilton Head he instead started horribly, by his reckoning playing the first five holes in abysmal fashion. But a few putts dropped, and one tee-shot destined for the water hit a tree and landed safe, and suddenly Furyk had a whole different mindset.

“I made some just awful swings early on… I was scratching my head, I felt like I was about 2‑over and I was 2‑under,” he said.

A bogey at 11, after a tentative approach, reset Furyk’s mind once again. From that point on he always looked like he would eventually push Kevin Kisner aside – to the surprise of everyone watching.

“I knew that one bogey wasn’t going to kill me, but I knew I had to keep the pedal down, had to be aggressive and I really felt something in my setup there that was causing all the bad swings,” he said.

“And from that point on I felt like I really struck the ball well. I had a lot of confidence. I didn’t hold back. I wasn’t conservative. Everything was aggressive. And I hit a lot of shots at the pin, and still stayed hot with the putter.”

It was a victory long in the making.

Bubba’s mixed bag

First of all, there was his appearance on a Christian rap song – which is just about as bad as it sounds (Bubba’s contribution starts at 3:09).

On the more enjoyable side, there was this from Watson while he was in China – the highlight of a series of videos he sent on social media while out playing a spot of night golf.

Stick to the golf, Bubba.

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Joy of Golf: The heroes and zeroes of this year’s Masters

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Sensation: Jordan Spieth proved what a special talent he is.

As we have always done after every major championship, here’s the report card on some of the leading players based on their performance in last week’s Masters at Augusta National:

– Different Strokes: Woods' Masters siege could become pivotal moment

– #360view: Golf in good hands with Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy

– Tiger Woods pulls the cloak of secrecy back on his schedule

Jordan Spieth

1st: 64-66-70- 70-270 (-18) 

OUR RATING - 10/10

Because we can’t give him an 11, we will give him a 10. In a Masters that was replete with heroic efforts, the 21-year-old Texan was truly the standout performer.

The fact that he matched the lowest 72-hole score of 18-under par to win his first green jacket, or that he set a new record of 28 birdies – which is more than a birdie every three holes – is secondary to the poise and mental fortitude he showed all week.

When he led on Sunday last year before finishing second to Bubba Watson, we knew he had the game to master Augusta one day.

And yet, to do that within a year and in such all-conquering fashion, only goes to show how special a player he really is.

Phil Mickelson
T2: 70-68-67- 69-274 (-14)

OUR RATING - 9/10

We have put the 44-yearold slightly ahead of Justin Rose, even though they finished on the same score. While they’ve both been struggling, Mickelson’s poor form goes back 16 months and, unlike the Englishman, he had an immense weight of expectation on his shoulders because of his record at Augusta, where he has won three green jackets before.

Mickelson has had just one top- 10 finish in 31 starts after the 2014 Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship and that stretch included a rare missed cut at the Masters last year. For him to turn things around in such fine fashion was an outstanding effort.

Justin Rose
T2: 67-70-67- 70-274 (-14)

OUR RATING - 8.5/10

Much like Mickelson, the 34-year-old Englishman had also been facing a crisis of form, although it wasn’t as bad as Lefty’s. Rose, the 2013 US Open champion, has had a terrible start to 2015, with not even one top-10 finish in seven starts. Also, he did not have the best track record in the tournament, with just one top-five finish – a tied fifth place in 2007.

As usual, Rose’s ball-striking was immaculate, as he found 54 greens in regulation during the tournament – third best in the field.

Rory McIlroy
4th: 71-71-68- 66-276 (-12)

OUR RATING - 7.5/10

It was McIlroy’s career best finish in the Masters and fourth was definitely outstanding after it looked like he’d miss the cut halfway through his second round on Friday. But the world No1 went about the back nine in 31, and then shot 10-under par over the weekend. That was a phenomenal performance from the Northern Irishman, and it is just a reflection of the standards he has set recently that fans are viewing a fourth place finish as a failure.

Hideki Matsuyama
5th: 71-70-70-66-277 (-11)

OUR RATING - 7.5/10

What should not be lost between all the hype of clash of two youngsters and the talk of rivalry between the 25-year-old McIlroy and the 21-year-old Spieth, is that Matsuyama is only 23, and has a game that is good enough to give anybody a run for their money. 

Tiger Woods
T17: 73-69-68-73-283 (-5)

OUR RATING - 7/10

If our rating for Woods for finishing tied 17th seems too magnanimous, it is because we surely did not expect the fourtime champion to even make it to the weekend, such was the state of his game because of injury and lack of form.

Ian Poulter
T6: 73-72-67-67-279 (-9)

OUR RATING - 7/10

The tied sixth place was Poulter’s career best effort at the Masters, and considering he hit 59 greens in regulation out of 72 – five more than eventual champion Spieth – it clearly shows that the mercurial Englishman is slowly getting back into some good form after a terrible 2014 season. 

Henrik Stenson
T19: 73-73-70-68-284 (-4)

OUR RATING - 6/10

We are following the same principle with Stenson as we did with Woods. Tied 19th place would have been woeful for the world No2 (before the Masters week), but considering the terrible bout of ’flu before the tournament, which drained all the energy from him and forced him to pull out of the Shell Houston Open, playing four days and battling hard was a great effort from the Swede.

Bubba Watson
T38: 71-71-73-74-289 (+1)

OUR RATING - 3/10

The week did not start too well for the defending champion, who was named as the most disliked player on the Tour by his fellow professionals, and it did not get any better as it progressed with the weekend being particularly bad by his standards.

Adam Scott
T38: 72-69-74-74-289 (+1)

OUR RATING - 3/10

A lot more was expected from the 2013 champion, especially as he had been preparing throughout the opening part of the season with this particular tournament in mind. His worst finish in his last eight majors.

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Different Strokes: Woods renaissance could become pivotal moment

Alex Dimond 15/04/2015
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The Masters will forever be remembered as the one where Jordan Spieth (R) announced himself to the world.

It’s a safe guess that Tiger Woods did not need reminding that he is no longer 21, but on the off chance he did he was certainly disabused of that notion last week.

Once upon a time Woods was the 21-year-old crown prince of Augusta National, the boy king who decimated the field and then slipped on the green jacket, but that was a while ago. This time he was in the crowd, watching on as another fresh-faced phenom, Jordan Spieth, emulated his achievements.

– #Quiz360: WIN dinner for 2 at the Jumeira Rotana hotel in Dubai
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– Tiger Woods pulls the cloak of secrecy back on his schedule

Woods, at 39, is now undeniably of a different generation, a different time—something many where already writing even before Spieth’s breakthrough display. Until last week many fans (and pundits) assumed that meant his winning days were gone as well—except, while Spieth was romping to victory, Woods was not-so-quietly making a real point of his own.

In the end Woods finished in a tie for 17th, when many had anticipated that he would not get close to making the cut (some assumed he would not even get that far, withdrawing even before the first 36 holes were up).

He would have finished even higher too, bar a final round collapse when fatigue, and the realization he had no chance of winning, combined to allow a few strokes to slip away. But for much of the third round Woods was on the fringes of contention, a rare achievement considering the chipping yips and wayward drives fans witnessed on his last two competitive appearances.

Masters champion Jordan Spieth (L) and four-time winner Tiger Woods (R).

“Well, considering where I was at Torrey and Phoenix, to make the complete swing change and rectify all the faults and come here to a major championship and contend, I’m proud of that part of it,” Woods said afterwards. “Just wish I could have made a few more timely putts and moved up that board.”

This was classic Woods, dwelling on the few imperfections even when there were so many positives to bask in. But that’s what made him great in the first place, and now has many thinking it will eventually make him great again.

It became relatively clear from the start of the week that Woods was confident about his chances, not just in his decision to play (shocker!) but also his bullish statements in his pre-tournament press conference and the revelation that—aided by his two children—he would also play in the par-three tournament, something he would never usually do.

“I worked my ass off,” Woods said, talking about his time on the sidelines. “That’s the easiest way to kind of describe it.  I worked hard.

“It was… people would never understand how much work I put into it to come back and do this again.  But it was sun-up to sun-down, and whenever I had free time; if the kids were asleep, I’d still be doing it, and then when they were in school, I’d still be doing it. So it was a lot of work.”

At the par-three tournament, visibly relaxed by the presence of his kids, Woods dialed in a couple of birdies before allowing Sam, his daughter, to putt out for him on one hole–disqualifying him from the competition. Nevertheless, his performance in that exhibition alone saw his odds of victory slashed with all bookies. Expectations had been raised.

When the tournament proper rolled around Woods missed the fairway off the first tee, as he was known to do even at his peak, and looked rusty for much of his opening 18. Nevertheless a 73 was no disaster, except for the fact the unstoppable Spieth had already roared out to 8-under par.

With the cobwebs blown away the second round was more fluid and impressive, as Woods started with a tidy three and then birdied three of six holes around the turn (including the treacherous 11th) to card a round of 69. He had not just made the cut with ease, he had put himself in position to strike at the leaders too.

Saturday is known as ‘Moving Day’ at any professional event, and it would prove to be not only when Tiger would make his move, but also show the clearest flashes of his old brilliance. At the ninth hole he missed the green exactly where you don’t want to—high and to the right—yet he produced a chip of such exquisite touch that he was able to roll in a six-foot putt for a par from a position that most other pros would have written off as a certain bogey.

Then, at the 13th, Woods’ driving woes reared their ugly head once again—as far and away his worst swing of the tournament resulted in a duck hook into the trees barely 150 yards in front of him. The 14-time major champion threaded a punched long iron back onto the fairway, and then knocked a 175-yard approach to 15 feet.

The putt dropped, resulting in a unexpected birdie and classic Tiger fist-pump. It was a truly electrifying moment.

“I had my chances to make this a really special round today,” Woods noted afterwards. “I had… man, I had it going there for a little bit.

[The] up-and-down at 9, that was pretty sweet. {And] A stupidly good birdie at 13.”

That moment was to be the pinnacle of his tournament—when he was briefly both producing breathtaking moments and moving into contention—but the fact it got no better should not be too surprising. He has not played in two months, after all, and before that he was playing awfully (afterwards Woods said he “didn’t know” how long it had been since he had played so well).

After a slow start (coupled with a flawless Spieth start) to his final round effectively ended any flimsy hopes Woods had of contending, the world No. 111 slowly faded away. A collision with a tree root at the ninth injured his wrist—Woods claimed a bone popped out, but he “put it back in”—and a closing 73 saw him slip down the final standings.

Nevertheless it was a positive week, with fans and pundits excited to see what he will be able to do in his next competitive appearance.

With the Open at St Andrews (where he was won twice before) later this year, suddenly there is hope that Woods will be a real contender in the majors once again. Perhaps the one thing he needs above all now is tournament practice, so the news he is to take another break is slightly disappointing (the wise money would suggest he will next tee it up at the Players Championship next month).

This Masters will forever be remembered as the one where Jordan Spieth announced himself to the world. Woods, like everyone else, could only watch on—but in the story of his renaissance in this event might end up becoming a similarly pivotal moment.

2. On the tee… a lady golfer?!

One intriguing question to emerge (or, more accurately, re-emerge) from the week at Augusta National was a thorny one: When might we see a women’s Masters held at the famous course?

In recent seasons we have seen the Women’s US Open take place at the same venue as the men’s tournament (and a week after they had vacated the course), while exhibition events have increasingly seen the two sexes play alongside and against one another. The prospect of a women’s Masters is not exactly a ludicrous proposition, indeed not having one might be less defensible in the modern climate.

The idea is fraught with difficulties, of course; Augusta’s history with minority groups and the fairer sex is hardly stellar (in 2012 the course admitted its first female members, but there remains only two of them)—something that is perhaps in part explained by, but not remotely justified by, the committee’s notoriously atavistic ways.

That has changed noticeably in recent years, however, with the recent introduction of the Drive, Chip & Putt championships for junior players (male and female) a case in point. The Masters committee clearly want to grow the game through its fun, innovative junior tournament, which enjoyed its second outing this year.

“Whether measured by the remarkable golfing skills of these kids, or the countless smiles and high‑fives we constantly exchanged, the Drive, Chip & Putt is playing an important role in creating interest in our game among the youth all across America,” as club chairman Billy Payne said last week.

Chairman Billy Payne waits on the first tee during the final round at The Masters.

Crucially, the tournament invites both boys and girls in both age groups. With that being the case, can the committee really turn around and tell the participating girls that, unlike their male counterparts, they will never grow up to play the famous course?

What possible justification could they come up with for that stance, when (not if) someone raises the inequality?

“We have a very short member season at Augusta National,” Payne offered, when asked about the possibility of a women’s event at the start of last week (“I don’t think so” was his first response). “It’s seven months only. The time that we dedicate to the preparation and conduct of the tournament is already extensive. I don’t think that we would ever host another tournament.”

This seems a slightly specious argument, especially considering the women’s event could presumably take place a week after the men’s one and cost the member’s exactly a week of playing time. If that is the case, surely the benefits outweigh the negatives for all concerned.

Over time, Payne will surely have to come up with a better reason than that. Arguably nothing could do more to boost women’s golf than the introduction of their own Masters tournament, especially if it took place in close proximity to the men’s event.

You sense Augusta National will resist the idea for as long as they possibly can, but eventually they will surely have to acquiesce.

3. David Letterman, eat your heart out

And to finish on a lighter note, we hand over to Matty (@MD_18undapar on Twitter) for his comprehensive recap of last week’s tournament. He’s quickly becoming the top pundit in the game (he’s certainly already miles ahead of Colin Montgomerie).

A couple of quick observations:

1. Alarmed he’s old enough to be taking such an interest in Rickie Fowler’s girlfriend.

2. “Get your plastic club, let’s do this.”

3. Again, is he old enough to be concerning himself with Lexi Thompson’s cover shoot?

4. Did NOT expect the Manchester derby to make an appearance here.

5. That’s better – his admiration for Morgan Goldstein feels much more wholesome.

6. A Bit of Chedda Da Connects ‘Flicka dat wrist’ playing while talking about Tiger Woods’ wrist injury. Because it mentions the word “wrist”, and the segment is about a hurt wrist. WE SEE YOU, MATTY BOY.

7. “What a great shot, Madame Condoleezza Rice. If you ever need a fourth…”

8. You know you’re on the wrong side of the generation gap when the young guns are sticking up for a member of One Direction.

9. Seriously, Matthew, stick to comic books and TV cartoons for at least a couple more years.

10. No-one likes a know-it-all. Although fair play on absolutely nailing your prediction. Please feel free to email across your US Open pick

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