From the bunkers to the Ryder Cup, the hottest topics at The Open

From the bunkers to the Ryder Cup, the hottest topics at The Open

HOYLAKE, England — When Brooks Koepka walked up to the first tee at Royal Liverpool Golf Club for a practice round Monday, U.S. Ryder Cup team captain Zach Johnson, world No. 1 golfer Scottie Scheffler and defending Open Championship winner Cameron Smith were waiting to tee off as well.

“There was a good little wait, so we all played,” Koepka said.

It was probably a good idea for Johnson and Koepka to get reacquainted before the upcoming Ryder Cup, which is scheduled Sept. 29-Oct. 1 at Marco Simone Golf Club outside Rome. Koepka all but secured a spot on the U.S. team by winning the PGA Championship for a third time in May. He could probably wrap it up with a good showing this week, which will be the LIV Golf League star’s last chance to earn Ryder Cup points.

“Yeah, it was fun,” Koepka said. “We got to talk about it a little bit, just what’s going on, I guess how the team is shaping up. It’s kind of interesting.”

While Koepka’s roster spot seems safe, there are still questions concerning both the U.S. and European rosters, and a handful of players could help themselves with strong showings in the last major championship of the season.

The U.S. team will include six automatic qualifiers — the players with the most Ryder Cup points after the BMW Championship on Aug. 20. As of Thursday, the top six players are Scheffler, Wyndham Clark, Koepka, Xander Schauffele, Patrick Cantlay and Max Homa. All but Homa seem nearly guaranteed of making the squad right now, even if they fall out of the top six.

“Obviously, I know where I stand in the rankings,” said Clark, the U.S. Open winner. ” I don’t know how it would play out the rest of the year. I would like to think I’m on the team, but at the same time, I believe I’ve still got to go earn it.”

Johnson will make six captain choices to fill his roster. Four-time Ryder Cup veteran Jordan Spieth (eighth in points) and Rickie Fowler (12th) would also seem to be in good shape. Fowler probably secured a roster spot by winning the Rocket Mortgage Classic earlier this month. He has 15 top-25 finishes in 21 starts and tied for fifth at the U.S. Open. Plus, he’s one of the most popular players on tour.

Two-time major winner Collin Morikawa (ninth) isn’t playing as well as he did in 2020 and ’21, but he went 3-0-1 at the 2021 Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin.

“I would love a big week,” Morikawa said. “Obviously, the goal is to win. That’s what it is every week. Ryder Cup is obviously a huge goal of mine and has been for the past two years, especially turning into the beginning of this year, and it still is. But winning takes care of everything.”

Keegan Bradley is seventh in the standings, Cameron Young is 10th, Sam Burns is 11th and Justin Thomas is 13th. Thomas has struggled mightily this season with only three top-10s in 17 starts. He missed the cut at the Masters and U.S. Open and tied for 65th at the PGA Championship. Still, JT went 6-2-1 in the past two Ryder Cups, the best record for an American who played in both.

Homa, Bradley, Young, Burns, Morikawa and Thomas could use something special this week to secure their places. They’re not alone. Tony Finau has won four times in the past year but has fallen to 18th in the standings. LIV Golf League star Dustin Johnson is 35th in the standings, but he went 5-0 at Whistling Straits and has 12 victories in five Ryder Cup appearances. Like Koepka, he’s eligible for the team because he retained his PGA of America membership.

European team captain Luke Donald won’t have to worry about selecting LIV Golf League players. Ryder Cup veterans Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia and others resigned their DP World Tour memberships, making them ineligible for the Ryder Cup.

The Europeans have six automatic qualifiers — the top three from the European points standings (Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm and Robert MacIntyre are currently the top three), and the top three from the world points standings who haven’t already qualified (Viktor Hovland, Tyrrell Hatton and Matt Fitzpatrick).

England’s Tommy Fleetwood and Justin Rose and Ireland’s Shane Lowry would seem to be safe, whether they’re automatic qualifiers or a captain’s choice. Germany’s Yannik Paul, Poland’s Adrian Meronk, Denmark’s Rasmus and Nicolai Hojgaard, Austria’s Sepp Straka, France’s Victor Perez, Sweden’s Alex Noren and Ludvig Aberg and Ireland’s Padraig Harrington also seem to be in the mix.

“Stay out of the fairway bunkers”

Halfway through Monday at The Open, Fitzpatrick stepped up to the 12th tee at Royal Liverpool with his driver and hit a wayward tee shot. He then hit another one in the bunker. Another one, this time in the fairway, and finally one more for good measure.

“I think even as an amateur, I wouldn’t necessarily say I had great results on links golf courses,” Fitzpatrick said. “There are loads of great [links courses]. It’s just for me, it doesn’t necessarily suit my eye.”

While last year’s U.S. Open winner might not prefer links courses, he did say he enjoys playing tough setups in tough conditions when he has to grind out pars instead of racking up birdies. If the wind picks up at Hoylake this week, Fitzpatrick may play well regardless of the links-style setting.

After a few days of practice at Royal Liverpool, one thing is certain: Club decisions off the tee will be fascinating, especially if the conditions worsen. The first four holes could all see players keeping their head covers on, depending on the strategy they choose. Three mid-length par 4s and a short par 4 will make players choose their club wisely.

On Tuesday, for example, Thomas took a hybrid off the tee on the 426-yard par-4 third, which features internal out of bounds up the right side. Fowler, Sahith Theegala and Homa took long irons. On the short 367-yard fourth hole, they all pulled out the same clubs, laying back in the process.

Though the golf course runs nearly 7,400 yards and will play long with the rain, accuracy will still be key more so than distance. That’s in large part due to the treacherous bunkers throughout the course.

“That’s step No. 1 this week,” Morikawa said. “Stay out of the fairway bunkers.”

One of the beauties of most links golf courses is that the bunkers are true hazards. This week, that’s even more the case with how they’re being raked. As player Michael Kim pointed out on Twitter, the rakes are wider, and the sand has been placed in such a way that golf balls that fall in will not trickle toward the middle of the bunker, making an up-and-down easier. Instead, balls have the potential to get hung up near the face of the bunkers or on the back edge, making the shots much more difficult.

“Any time you’re in a bunker, it’s pretty much a stroke penalty the way the bunkers are shaped this week,” Scheffler said. “Anytime my ball is going towards a bunker, I’m very nervous. I’m just going to try and avoid the bunkers at all costs.”

Players have spent ample time in the nearby chipping area, dropping balls all over each bunker and attempting to see how to best get out. Laurie Canter’s caddie purposefully threw balls into the face of the bunker to see how they would bounce and where they would land. Canter laughed and struggled to get them out, exaggerating his open-face technique and getting out of the way as sand splashed toward him.

Conversely, plenty of players have dedicated time to dialing in their short-sided shots over those bunkers as well. With the conditions of the course being a bit more green and slightly wet, there’s a good chance some balls roll up to or land near the bunker, calling for a flop shot of shorts. On the short par-3 17, the R&A has cruelly placed the drop zone just behind one of those treacherous bunkers. A true penalty drop at last.

Speaking of 17 …

The holes that could decide the tournament

When it comes to the 17th hole, everyone wanted more drama. To hear R&A CEO Martin Slumbers talk about it, it wasn’t just the R&A that desired more excitement to the finish at Hoylake after 2006 and 2014. The club wanted it, too. And so, a new hole was born. The old 15th hole was flipped around to go toward the ocean, shortened to about 136 yards and likely into wind, with its tee placed inside a cavernous grandstand that could deceive players come tournament time.

“I would say if it is, it’s fair, because it’s unfair to everybody,” Rahm said of the hole. “Like it’s golf, and it’s life. Simple as that.”

The hole, called “Little Eye,” is a sight to behold. Its infinity green falls on essentially all sides and is surrounded by bunkers. To say you need a near-perfect shot is not an exaggeration. When the wind inevitably picks up, you might need some luck too.

Should a player find the surface on 17, a birdie will certainly pick up shots on the field, while a two-putt par will feel like a win. Any shot that trickles off the green or into a bunker will require a grueling amount of work to save bogey and a miracle to still make par.

“There is not really a high-percentage play,” Scheffler said. “You just have to hit a really good shot, and if you don’t, I would say missing it left of the green is a little bit better than right.”

Slumbers, for his part, said he believes all great par 3s are short, citing the 12th at Augusta and the 17th at TPC Sawgrass alongside the new addition to Royal Liverpool. More importantly, in his mind, the made-for-drama hole stands out among a compelling finish to a round.

“I think it fits well,” Slumbers said of 17. “What it also does, it enabled us to reconfigure the final bit around there. So we got four holes. The final four holes will be 610 par-5, 480 par-4, 136 par-3, 620 par-5. A lot of things could happen on that, and I think that drama will unfold come Sunday.”

Should it come down to it, the 18th hole will be particularly fascinating. The long par-5 features internal out of bounds quite close to the fairway on the right and all week long, players have been making sure to take multiple shots from their drive to see if they can go for it, as well as plenty of wedges from the fairway and rough less than 100 yards out should they lay back. Rose tried to go for it late Thursday, and his ball ended up nearly behind the left grandstand on the 18th. Come Sunday, the decision-making will be compelling, especially if a player needs a birdie or an eagle to win.

Eyes on the weather

The weather forecast for the weekend continues to look dicey. It has already changed the course, as Slumbers noted during his news conference Wednesday. He was hoping for a browned-out, slick course like the one Tiger Woods conquered to win The Open at Royal Liverpool in 2006.

“When I was looking at it five, six weeks ago, and I was excited about that,” Slumbers said. “But every time I get excited about a nice brown golf course, Mother Nature comes in. I think one of the beauties of The Open Championship and the way I inherited it from my predecessors and the way I do it is we don’t fight nature. We just let nature [happen]. It’s rained and it’s now green.

“But on the other side of it, the rough has come up. When it was brown, the rough had burnt out and it was a different golf course.”

The forecast for the weekend doesn’t look great, unless you like proper Open Championship-like weather. Thursday’s opening round is expected to be played under partly cloudy skies with a slight chance of showers. There’s a 71% chance of rain Friday morning, 93% chance on Saturday and 83% chance of light rain Sunday. Winds are expected to be 20 to 25 mph.

So which players are more adept at handling the poor conditions? McIlroy, Koepka, Fowler, Johnson, Jason Day, Henrik Stenson, Adam Scott, Tommy Fleetwood, Hatton and Patrick Reed have been considered among the best “bad weather” players, although, believe it or not, there’s not an available metric to record the statistic.

The third round of the PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club was played in a downpour, and only nine players recorded scores under par. Koepka (66), Fleetwood (68), McIlroy (69), Justin Rose (69), Hatton (69) and Reed (69) were among them.

Ireland’s Shane Lowry survived a downpour and strong winds in the final round to win the 2019 Open Championship at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland. Surprisingly, he is not a fan of playing in the rain and wind, even though many people have suggested he is. Lowry famously lost the 2022 Honda Classic to Straka after he had to hit his tee shot in torrential rain on the 72nd hole.

“No, I don’t,” Lowry said. “I felt like that on Sunday in Scotland [last week]. There was a 40 mph wind and everyone was like, ‘Oh, it should suit you.’ But I felt like I was playing well enough that if the weather was nice, I would’ve had a better chance.”

Rahm speaks up

Perhaps no other player besides McIlroy has been as up front and willing to talk about the divide in golf over the past year than Rahm.

This week was no different. While some players reverted to lines they used in previous tournaments, citing a lack of knowledge and uncertainty in their answers, Rahm dove into the details of the framework agreement between the PGA Tour and Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia more than most, even tackling hot-button topics like whether players who remained loyal to the tour should receive compensation.

“I understand the PGA Tour wanting to do something for those players who helped and stayed on the PGA Tour,” Rahm said. “I’ll be the first one to say I wasn’t forced into anything. It was my choice to stay.”

While Rahm said he wouldn’t be upset to receive some sort of compensation, he disagreed that there should absolutely be compensation for the players who remained loyal to the PGA Tour.

“We all had the chance to go to LIV and take the money, and we chose to stay at the PGA Tour for whatever reason we chose.,” Rahm said. “As I’ve said before, I already make an amazing living doing what I do. I’m extremely thankful, and that all happened because of the platform the PGA Tour provided me. As far as I’m concerned, they’ve done enough for me.”

Rahm also took the opportunity to stand behind PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, who has received plenty of criticism throughout the past year and most recently took a medical leave. The No. 3-ranked player in the world said Monahan has not lost his trust and deserves more time to figure out where the future of the sport goes from here given all the players have to work off is a framework agreement.

“I think he’s done a fantastic job,” Rahm said. “I would say it was unexpected what happened. I think what the management of the PGA Tour, the turn they took without us knowing was very unexpected, but I still think he’s been doing a great job.”

Though Rahm has been vocal, he has been able to compartmentalize the seeming division well. At every major this year, the Spaniard has either spent his time during practice rounds playing with Sergio Garcia — his fellow countryman who went to LIV — and Phil Mickelson — his fellow Arizona State alum who spearheaded the entire LIV operation.

On Wednesday at Hoylake, Rahm once again played a practice round with Mickelson, with whom he’s clearly still very friendly. One of the questions that remains is how LIV players will be incorporated back into the tour if LIV ceases to exist. Rahm said he thinks most people have assumed players would even want to come back in the first place.

“That’s one of the things that the agreement needs to sort out,” he said. “From what I hear, they don’t really want to come back, so I don’t know. It’s tricky, right? I can understand people on the PGA Tour not wanting those players back, and I can also understand why some of them want to come back.”

One thing Rahm was certain and adamant about was this: Players who do return should receive some sort of punishment. What exactly that punishment is, however, are waters he’s not wading in.

“I’m not a politician. That’s not my job,” Rahm said. “That’s for the disciplinary board and other people that are paid to do that. My job is to hit the golf ball and try to do the best I can.”

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