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11:52AM

This British Open is McIlroy’s chance for redemption  

  CARNOUSTIE, Scotland— He spoke about bringing a thesaurus to the next press conference. Rory McIlroy was in a debate about how to describe the virtually indescribable but very difficult last four holes at Carnoustie. He’d be better off bringing a two-shot lead.

   There’s McIlroy, high on the leaderboard halfway through this British Open, in position to overtake the few men in front of him. Or to fail once more.

   In a light rain that made the Open feel like the Open, if with all the low scores not seem like one, McIlroy on Friday shot a second straight  2-under par 69.  He had only one bogey. “I’m pretty pleased with that,” he said.

    Something pleasing at a major golf tournament, finally, perhaps temporarily. He fell apart the final round of the Masters, going head-to-head in the final twosome against the eventual winner, Patrick Reed. He missed the cut in the U. S. Open.

  Now it is time for redemption, time to shake off the criticism, to show he once more is the man who thrilled as a kid, winning the British Open, the U.S. Open and twice winning the PGA Championship by the age of 25.

  The more you do, of course, the more the world wants you to do.

    “The more success you have,” said McIlroy the day before the Open began, “the more pressure you put on yourself because of expectations.”

     His expectations. Our expectations.

    “Rory’s obviously played well this year,” said Padraig Harrington, a statement that is accurate if one win and a second on two different tours means playing well.

  “Clearly,” said Harrington, “his career is solely based on how he does in the majors.”

   As is Tiger Woods career. As is Phil Mickelson’s career. As was Jack Nicklaus career.

  For Joe Montana and Tom Brady the standard is winning Super Bowls. For the Warrior stars, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and teammates, it’s winning NBA titles. Something has to be used as the yardstick for greatness.

    “I was on a nice run there, from 2011 to 2014,” said McIlroy. “I haven’t won one since. But I’m trying.”

    In the British Isle where the attitude invariably is “us against them,” McIlroy has been elevated to celebrity status, his life as well as his golf covered microscopically like some Hollywood figure—and not just because Rory’s from Holywood, which in Northern Ireland is pronounced “Hollywood.”

    The Sun, the British tabloid, carried a story in May headlined, “McIlroy: ‘Wife pulled me out of wine-drinking, TV-binging Masters malaise.”

  According to the story, McIlroy said “he had to be dragged out of the house by wife Erica after spending a full week brooding on his final-round flop at the Masters . . . once I got back into my routine, I was fine.”

   McIlroy, who needs a Masters victory to become only the sixth golfer in history to win all of the four Grand Slam tournaments, was within a short eagle putt of tying Reed on the second hole.

  The ball didn’t fall. McIlroy did, however, and he ended p tying for fifth, six shots back. “I just didn’t quite have it,” he would say that say.”

  Maybe not as bad as 2011, when McIlroy, then 22, blew a four-shot lead he carried into the Masters final round but still a me memory that haunts, a memory of which he’s too often reminded.

  As we’re aware, in sports, you’re only as good—or bad—as your last game. Or match. Or maybe in this Open, last round.  Rory said he Is not playing to cement a legacy. Oh, but he is, every time he tees it up in a major. There’s no escape from his reputation.

“I feel very comfortable out there,” McIlroy explained when asked about his golf. “I had been worrying about the result, not the process.

  “Even if I don’t play my best golf and don’t shoot the scores I want, I’m going to go down swinging. I’m going to go down giving it my best.”

  That’s all we can ask.

2:38PM

Whatever happened to the real British Open?

 CARNOUSTIE, Scotland—Whatever happened to the real British Open? Did it miss a turn on the A92 and end up in Broughty Ferry? Did it tumble off the Tay Bridge. I mean the British Open, one where the rain drenches, the wind howls and the shots that don’t bounce into the rough fly into bunkers.

  A tournament that was supposed to be the Open, the 147th, began Thursday, but it was a poor facsimile. This one the sun was shining, the putts were dropping and there were so many rounds under par—including , for a while that of Tiger Woods—it was unreall.

   Carnoustie, next to the North Sea, is reputed to be the most difficult course in the Open rota. A young South African, in his first Open, Erik van Rooyen, playing in his first Open may not believe that.

  “It was playing as easy as it was going to play all week,” said van Rooyen.  “You had to take advantage of it.”

  And he and many others did just that. Kevin Kisner, a University of Georgia guy who was overtaken by Justin Thomas in last year’s PGA Championship, shot a 5-under par 66 for the lead, a shot in front of van Rooyen, Tony Finau and somebody named Zander Lombard, another South African.

   Hey, arguably the greatest South African golfer ever, Gary Player, won at Carnoustie 50 years ago, 1968. That Open was miserably genuine, with conditions so unpleasant and demanding even the legendary Jack Nicklaus couldn’t reach the green of the 16th hole, a 220-yard par-3, using a driver.

  This opening round there were problems—even when Scotland resembles Samoa,  people make mistakes—but they were not the norm., Day One was hardly a walk spoiled. Even 60-year-old Sandy Lyle, in the tournament as the 1985 champion, shot even par the front nine, before fading on the more difficult back.

  “You never know what the weather is going to hold,” said Kisner, alluding to the next three rounds, with rain predicted. ”You’re always going to try and get in as low as you can, because you never know about the next day.”

  You never know about Tiger Woods either. He was 2-under par through 11, and, well, he had said the Open could be the place to earn that 15th major, because the ball rolls on the hard, almost-barren-fairways. He could keep up with the big hitters.

  But this isn’t 10 years ago. Woods has gone through a lot, physically, with the back surgeries and emotionally for other reasons. He mishits a ball, now and then and even when Carnoustie is kind, there are bogies lurking.

 “I played better than what the score indicates,” said Woods, a lament heard by golfers of all classes, “because I had -- I had two 8-irons into both par 5s today, and I end up with par on both of those. If I just clean up those two holes and play them the way I'm supposed to play them with  an 8 iron in my hand, I think I'd probably have the best round in the afternoon wave.”

  “Ah yes, “if.”

  “So it certainly could have been a little bit better.”

  Jordan Spieth, last year’s winner—the Champion Golfer of the Year is how he’s known—was 3-under through 14. Then, he would confess, “It was a really poor decision on the second shot that cost me.”  Big time.

  A double bogey 6 at 15, followed by bogies at 16 and 17. He finished with a one-over 72.

  “I’ve done a bit of that this year,” said Spieth, “decision making that cost me.”

  That occurs whatever weather nature sends.

  Jhonattan Vegas played at the University of Texas and has won on the PGA Tour. He’s a Venezuelan, and that created a major problem for this major championship.

  He intended to fly to Scotland earlier in the week but his visa for entry into Britain had expired and a new one had been delayed in processing. So at the last minute he had fly from Houston, where he resides, to Toronto then to Glasgow, where he boarded a helicopter to Carnoustie, some 70 miles away.

  There was no space for his tournament clubs, so he used a make-shift-set assembled by the manufacturer he endorses, Taylor Made, teed off around 10:30—and shot 76

A visa problem is not the usual hazard at Carnoustie, or any Open.”

10:49AM

Carnoustie has brought out the best—and the worst 

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland—He lost the British Open, tossed it away, a sporting collapse seemingly as embarrassing as it was memorable. And yet Jean Van De Velde did not lose his sense of humor.

   It was 1999 at Carnoustie when Van De Velde carried a three-shot lead to the final hole, hit a few awful shots and a couple of bewildering ones and dropped into a tie with Paul Lawrie and Justin Leonard. Lawrie won the playoff.

    The next morning, I boarded a flight, and sat next to the teaching pro Butch Harmon who without even saying hello, asked “What was he thinking?”

  Of course, he wasn’t thinking, not after knocking s ball off a bridge railing into Barry Burn, the inlet that fronts the 18th green, taking off his shoes and socks, rolling up his pant legs to the knees and finally deciding to take a penalty drop.

Another Open is back at Carnoustie, and so is Van de Velde, now 52, as a commentator for French television. A Jack Nicklaus or a Tiger Woods surely would have laid up short of the water, playing for a bogey. That wasn’t the way Van de Velde, a happy-go-lucky sort went about golf or life.

  “Some people have their name on the trophy,” Van de Velde said the other day, “I have my name on the bridge.”

Golf can make a fool out of anyone. Arnold Palmer had that seven-shot over Billy Casper with nine holes to play in the 1966 U.S. Open at San Francisco’s Olympic Club. Arnie went after birdies and came in with bogies. Casper won the playoff.

  Fifty years ago, in another Open, one played in wind so strong Jack Nicklaus couldn’t reach the 240-yard par-3 16th with a driver. Gary Player won that Open and under the conditions called Carnoustie “The hardest course in the world.”

It has been a difficult one. The last Open held here, 2007, Sergio Garcia was the leader much of the way. He didn’t hit a ball into Barry Burn, but he did make a mess of things, with a double bogey.

  He too ended up in a playoff, with Padraig Harrington, and it was Harrington who grabbed the Open that was Garcia’s. Harrington held the trophy, and Sergio held a grudge, whining, “Everyone else hits the flagstick and the ball drops right down. I hit the flagstick, and the ball bounces off the green.”

   Said Harrington of 18, “There is nowhere to hide on that hole.”

   The rough is not as long at Carnoustie this time as it had been for past Opens, a product of a relatively dry summer across Scotland. But Barry Burn still snakes in front of the final hole.

  “The Open is by far the greatest championship in the world,” said a slightly biased Gary Player, who is now 82. “It’s the only tournament where yardage doesn’t mean anything,”

  That’s it the wind is up. It hasn’t been earlier in the week, but as they used to say about Chicago, wait another hour and the weather will change.”

  “This championship,” reminded Player, who won it three times, “is a test of more patience, of never feeling sorry for yourself. It almost teaches you to enjoy adversity.”

  Van de Velde made the best of his. He’s better known than the man who beat him in the playoff.

Carnoustie is where in 1953 the great Ben Hogan won his only British Open Supposedly the Scots were so impressed with the way he handled the weather and the course they nicknamed him. “The Wee Ice Mon,”  but one of the local journalists insists no true Scot would ever use that term.

   Carnoustie has brought out the best and worst of the men who have played it through the years. Just keep the ball out of Barry Burn or it can be Car-nasty.

10:05AM

Tiger’s thoughts about winning this British: ‘Who knows?’

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland—Who knows? That was the question asked by Tiger Woods. Of himself.

  Who knows if Tiger, well past his 43rd birthday, is able to win this 147th British Open? Is able to win any golf tournament, major or not?.

  Who knows if the weather, warm, inviting for all Great Britain, indeed for most of Western Europe, will hold for another week or instead with wind and rain turn the Open into the challenge it was meant to be.

  For a while, at St. Andrews, then at Hoylake, Tiger Woods owned the Open, shooting record scores. But that was then, before the emergence of Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy. Before the back surgeries, which made Woods a spectator instead of an entrant.

   Now, at Carnoustie, “Car-nasty,”  north of St. Andrews, across the Firth of Tay, in Angus, Woods returns to the Open after an absence of two years, a man of experience and doubt, not a favorite but still the focus,

   To ESPN, he’s the only man on the course, any course, any event. To both the purist and the casual fan he’s the eternal unanswered query: “Is Tiger Woods going to win another major?”

   The sarcastic response would be, not with Brooks Koepka or Patrick Reed, Dustin Johnson or Justin Thomas in the field. But golf is different than any sport except bowling. There’s no defense. The only effect you have on an opponent is psychological.

   Tiger was on the media room stage Tuesday, facing the skeptics, who as every tournament he plays-- the Open, which starts Thursday is his 12th of 2018—wonder how much trust should be placed on Woods’ chances. How’s his swing? More importantly, how’s his confidence?

“Each tournament I keep coming back to,” Woods said, perhaps as much to persuade himself as anyone, “I keep feeling a little bit better because I’m starting to play golf again. My feels are much better than they were at the beginning of the year.

 “I have a better understanding of my game and my body and my swing, much more so than I did at Augusta.”

That’s the Masters, in April, where he tied for 32nd.  Two months later, the U.S. Open, at Shinnecock Hills, a more punishing course than Augusta National, Woods missed the cut, but so did Spieth, McIlroy and Sergio Garcia.

    A couple after  that, the Quicken Loans event, Tiger tied for fourth.

  He’s changed putters for the British. He’s modified his swing, if only slightly. Everything, he insisted, is a little better. It should be by the middle of July, after weeks on different courses in different locations.

  “I’ve put myself up there in contention a couple of times,” said Woods. “I just need to play some cleaner golf and who knows?”

   The Open is links golf, always played on the hard, fast fairways of linksland, along the coasts of Britain  that thousands of years ago were under the Atlantic Ocean or North Sea.

  It is golf played along the ground, with balls rolling forever, golf that demands creativity, golf Tiger said he relishes, hitting a low-running iron 250 t0 300 yards, golf that enables an older player such as Tom Watson in 2009 at Turnberry when he was 59 and lost in a playoff, to keep up with the young guns.

“I’ve always loved playing links golf,” said Woods. “Feel has a lot to do with winning the Open. I think the guys traditionally over the years who have done well have been wonderful feel players and because it can be difficult to get the ball close, wonderful lag putters.”

   Guys like Watson, who won five Opens; guys like Gary Player, who won three, including here at Carnoustie in 1968; and guys like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Seve Ballesteros won two apiece.

  “There definitely were points in time,” said Woods referring to his post-surgical recovery, “I thought I’d never play in this championship again. Watching it on TV is great, but it’s better in person. I remember how it feels to come down to the last hole with a chance to win. “

  Will he ever have that feeling again? As he said, who knows?

12:48PM

Wimbledon’s last act: An anticlimax starring Djokovic

By Art Spander

WMBLEDON, England — In this land where Shakespeare wrote, “This blessed plot, this realm, this England,” Wimbledon 2018 went against the basic rule of theatre and fiction.

After a fantastic build-up, hours of suspense and history, the conclusion to the tale was anti-climatic.

Not because Novak Djokovic triumphed — he’s a one-man show full of subplots — but that his 6-2, 6-2, 7-6 (3) victory over a weary Kevin Anderson in the final Sunday was hardly what we had hoped.

Although it’s probably what many expected.

It was flat and lifeless, a dreary contrast to the semifinals, which were wonderfully competitive if, in this modern age of instant gratification, a bit too long — well, more than a bit.

Anderson needed 6 hours, 36 minutes for his win over John Isner in one semi, finishing 26-24 in the fifth set; Djokovic needed 5 hours 16 minutes (and two days) to get past Rafael Nadal, finishing 10-8 in the fifth set. How do you top that?

You don’t. You get too overly tired players, if one, Djokovic, now a four-time Wimbledon winner and 13-time Grand Slam winner, has the pedigree and the better all-around game. And no less significantly, as he mentioned, the experience in Wimbledon finals.

It’s not fair, perhaps, to describe the game of the 6-foot-8 Anderson, a South African who played for the University of Illinois and lives in Florida, as the tennis version of a one-note samba. But his strength is his serve. And against Djokovic, one of best returners ever, Anderson’s strength was a weakness.

Serving to open the match on yet another glorious 85-degree afternoon, Anderson was broken. You sensed his opportunity was, too. “Novak beat up on me pretty bad,” said Anderson. He now has been in two Slam finals, losing in the 2017 U.S Open to Nadal.

From 2013 through early 2016, Djokovic, now 31, owned men’s tennis, Of the 16 Grand Slams over that period he won seven and was in five other finals. He won four in a row, starting with the 2015 U.S. Open through the 2016 French.

Then at the 2016 Wimbledon, he hurt his elbow. That, along with some coaching changes — Boris Becker out, Andre Agassi out — and rumored family problems, dropped him into a void.

Djokovic finally underwent surgery on the elbow in February.

“After that, I had a really good recovery,” he said. “I thought maybe too fast. I wasn’t ready to compete ... It took me several months to regain the confidence, go back to basics. I had to trust the process ... Playing against Nadal in the semifinals here was the biggest test that I could have, specifically for that, just to see if I could prevail.”

Djokovic is from Serbia, and while he speaks English well he tends to sound as if the words were linked together by, no, not Shakespeare, but a government employee — if one with the great ability to cover every inch of a tennis court.

He was aware of his opponent’s tactics — and tiredness, although Djokovic had fewer than 24 hours to recover from the Nadal semi.

“I knew Kevin spent plenty of time on the court in the quarters (a five-set win over Roger Federer) and semis, marathon wins. I did too. He had a day to recover. But at the same time, I knew it was his first Wimbledon finals, and it really is a different sensation when you’re in the finals.

“It was my fifth, and I tried to use that experience, that mental edge that I have, to start off the right way. The first game, I made a break of serve that was a perfect possible start. After that, I cruised for two sets.”

Anderson, 32, conceded he was nervous. And he said his body “didn’t feel great.”

Nor did the match, which required only 2 hours, 19 minutes (Anderson’s fifth set against Isner alone was some three hours).

“I didn’t play great tennis in the beginning,” said Anderson. “I definitely felt much better in the third set. I thought I had quite a few opportunities to win that third set.

“I would have loved to push it to another set, but obviously it wasn’t meant to be.”