Lefty play­ing without a driver

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - SPORTS - BY DOUG FER­GU­SON

Royal Birk­dale and Tor­rey Pines would seem to have noth­ing in com­mon ex­cept Phil Mick­el­son is play­ing ma­jor cham­pi­onships on both without a driver in his bag.

Mick­el­son car­ried only the 3-wood with him dur­ing his prac­tice round Tues­day at the Bri­tish Open, and he plans to keep it that way.

“We won’t be play­ing in this wind,” Mick­el­son said as he fin­ished up his round with a light blow­ing to­ward the Ir­ish Sea. “And when we get the nor­mal wind, there re­ally isn’t a driver for me un­til we get to 15. And then that brings the bunkers into play.”

Mick­el­son, who once had two driv­ers in his bag at the Masters, didn’t hit a driver in the 2008 U.S. Open at Tor­rey Pines. He wasn’t much of a fac­tor, fin­ish­ing five shots out of the play­off that Tiger Woods won over Rocco Me­di­ate.

Mick­el­son in­stead has four wedges, in­clud­ing a 64-de­gree sand wedge that he can use for flop shots off tight lies on a links course.

He also has two 3-irons, one of them with the loft tweaked to make a strong, driv­ing club.

The 3-wood is the same club he had when he won the Bri­tish Open at Muir­field in 2013, his last vic­tory.

“It’s a much eas­ier club for me to hit low,” Mick­el­son said on Golf Chan­nel. “So even into the wind, I hit it ev­ery bit as far as I hit a driver.”

TIGER FALL­ING

Tiger Woods is out of golf for the rest of the sea­son as he re­cov­ers from a fourth back surgery, and that means he fi­nally is out of the top 1,000 play­ers listed in the Of­fi­cial World Golf Rank­ing.

Woods, now at No. 1,005, was at No. 1 for 683 weeks, twice as long as any­one else in the his­tory of the rank­ing that dates to 1986.

GET­TING AWAY

Brooks Koepka won the U.S. Open, headed off to Las Ve­gas and hasn’t been seen in the golf­ing world since then.

That’s just the way he had it planned.

Koepka is play­ing for the first time since his four-shot vic­tory at Erin Hills.

He had a big stretch at the end of the year with two ma­jors, a World Golf Cham­pi­onship, the four FedEx Cup play­off events and the Pres­i­dents Cup, so he wanted to be fresh.

With a chance to close out the match, Jor­dan Spi­eth fired his sec­ond shot into the par-5 15th at Royal Birk­dale and it never left the flag, bound­ing onto the green about 20 feet be­hind the hole.

His part­ner Tues­day was Justin Thomas, who watched the flight of the ball and said, “I like hav­ing him on my team when he’s play­ing like this.”

Ev­ery­one is on their own when the Bri­tish Open be­gins on Thurs­day, and Spi­eth is look­ing sharp enough to be listed as a co-favourite with Dustin John­son, the No. 1 player in the world. Spi­eth is com­ing off his sec­ond vic­tory of the year last month at the Trav­el­ers Cham­pi­onship. And when his put­ter is work­ing – it re­ally hasn’t been this year – he is re­garded as a favourite at just about any tour­na­ment.

Still to be de­ter­mined is how much he thrives on links cour­ses like Royal Birk­dale.

What stands out is St. An­drews in 2015, when the 23-year-old Texan was go­ing for the third leg of the Grand Slam and missed the play­off by one shot. Even so, he hasn’t fin­ished higher than 30th in the other three has played.

So much of his mys­tique is built around the 2015 sea­son – the Masters and U.S. Open, five vic­to­ries, the FedEx Cup. So many of the ex­pec­ta­tions of Spi­eth now are mea­sured against that sea­son. Those are rare even for the great­est play­ers, and it might be Spi­eth’s bad luck it hap­pened to him so early in his ca­reer.

He still wouldn’t trade it. Asked to mea­sure his game now com­pared with two years ago, Spi­eth said his long game is bet­ter, but he hasn’t been mak­ing putts. Such is golf.

“I rec­og­nize that be­ing five years in now ... and five years doesn’t make me a vet­eran, but it helps me re­al­ize kind of how things go,” he said. “And last year I was pretty caught in 2015. This year I’m not. Hope­fully, we can have an­other one or two like that. But if we keep on try­ing to im­prove each part of the game, stick to the process, then we’ll have the re­sults we want.”

Tues­day brought more sun­shine to the Lan­cashire Coast and only a light wind that came out of a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion. The course is fast, and balls are bounc­ing high when land­ing, which is links golf at its best.

In any con­di­tions, Birk­dale is not a course that leads to low Bri­tish Opens he scor­ing, cer­tainly not like what Hen­rik Sten­son had last year at Royal Troon when he set the ma­jor cham­pi­onship record of 264 in his bril­liant duel with Phil Mick­el­son.

The low­est score ever at Royal Birk­dale was 272 by Ian Bak­erFinch in 1991.

Spi­eth still re­ferred to the course as among the fairest he has seen in his limited ex­pe­ri­ence at golf’s old­est cham­pi­onship. And when he looks around the land­scape, he sees more bal­ance of power than ever be­fore.

Just two years ago, Spi­eth was con­sid­ered part of the mod­ern ver­sion of a “Big Three” that in­cluded Rory McIl­roy and Ja­son Day. And then along came John­son, ris­ing to No. 1 in the world in Fe­bru­ary and leav­ing ev­ery­one well be­hind. But now John­son hasn’t won since March, slowed by his slip down the stairs at the Masters. McIl­roy and Day haven’t won at all.

“The younger gen­er­a­tion, you look at how many good play­ers there are,” U.S. Open cham­pion Brooks Koepka said. “You look at how it was at Erin Hills. Ev­ery­one up there hadn’t won a ma­jor – Rickie (Fowler), Justin (Thomas), Hideki (Mat­suyama).”

No mat­ter who wins this week, Spi­eth doesn’t see that chang­ing.

His big sea­son in 2015 gave him a taste of it. The next two years, even with two vic­to­ries in each one, gave him an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of how Tiger Woods dom­i­nated for so long.

He was asked the chances of there be­ing an­other dom­i­nant force in golf.

“I wouldn’t get your hopes up,” Spi­eth replied. “What Tiger has done ... hav­ing ex­pe­ri­enced a year like he con­tin­ued to do for years, it just takes a lot out of you. It’s very tough to do. And you have to have a lot of things go right at the right times.

“I think it’s go­ing to be a very ex­cit­ing time go­ing for­ward of guys that are go­ing to be play­ing and bat­tling against each other,” he said. “You’ll see a group of 10 to 12 guys over the next 15, 20 years that are go­ing to have a lot of com­pe­ti­tion that comes down the stretch with each other.”

As for that streak of seven first-time win­ners in the ma­jors?

Spi­eth spent only three semesters at Texas, though he used plenty of logic when he said that the 156-man field at Royal Birk­dale has more play­ers who haven’t won a ma­jor than who have.

“Chances are, it’s go­ing to be some­body that hasn’t won one,” he said.

AP PHOTO

Jor­dan Spi­eth hits a shot out of a bunker on the fourth green dur­ing Tues­day’s prac­tice round ahead of the Bri­tish Open Golf Cham­pi­onship at Royal Birk­dale, South­port, Eng­land.

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