Tour Confidential: Shane Lowry’s breakthrough, hot drivers, Tiger and Rory’s flops and more
Check in every Sunday night for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week we discuss Shane Lowry’s crowd-pleasing Open victory, Rory McIlroy’s unexpected missed cut, Tiger Woods’ chances in future majors, slow play, non-conforming drivers and so much more.
1. Shane Lowry blew away the competition and won the Open Championship by six strokes on a wet and windy Sunday at Royal Portrush. It’s the first major victory for the 32-year-old Irishman. What most impressed you about Lowry’s performance?
Sean Zak, associate editor (@Sean_Zak): His front nines! Every single round Lowry built momentum by owning the front nine. The guy made at least three birdies on that side every round, which was a prerequisite for success at Portrush. The back beat up everyone, and it got the best of Lowry at times, but only after he’d given himself some breathing room.
Jeff Ritter, digital development editor (@Jeff_Ritter): His back nines! He closed strong each day, even while seeing his name atop the boards and dealing with the emotions of playing in front of the thundering home crowds. It was a complete victory, and he deserved it.
Josh Sens, contributor (@JoshSens): How, after pulling his opening tee shot, he seemed to decide on the fly to spend the rest of the day hitting the unglamorous cut he knew he could control. A great example of course and game management under serious pressure. On a side note, it was also a good playing lesson for the rest of us — a reminder that we should all forget about trying to be heroes and play the shots we can actually hit.
Jessica Marksbury, multimedia editor (@Jess_Marksbury): I felt there were two big-time moments for Shane on Sunday: that clutch bogey putt he made on the first hole to avoid a two-shot swing right off the bat, and the great up-and-down from the bunker on 13. Both of those holes were so impressive to me, and kept Lowry afloat with considerable padding so the outcome was never truly in doubt. It was a thorough victory, and so well-deserved.
Michael Bamberger, senior writer: What impressed me most about Shane Lowry was Shane Lowry his own self: unpretentious, honest, funny, talented, smart, grateful.
Luke Kerr-Dineen, instruction editor (@LukeKerrDineen): He was always going to make bogeys in this weather. But what impressed me most is that he didn’t panic. Each time he slipped he came back better, and that’s something you rarely see in players vying for their first major.
Dylan Dethier, associate editor (@Dylan_Dethier): The way he wore the pressure of being an Irish leader and never once blinked. He rode the crowd support instead of letting it get to him — I thought he’d have a tougher time with it.
John Wood, PGA Tour caddie for Matt Kuchar (@Johnwould): The weekend. The history of golf is riddled with 36-hole leaders who end up T26. To go into the weekend on top and then shooting that ridiculous 63 on Saturday to give himself that comfortable but somehow uncomfortable lead was huge. What was most impressive was his Sunday. The difference between a 54-hole lead and a 72-hole lead, especially at an Open Championship with brutal final-day conditions, is the difference between an anthill and Mt. Everest. Those chasing coming into Sunday got exactly what they needed, a blustery, rainy day with the potential for huge and immediate swings in scoring. Every swing you made brought the potential for doubles or worse, and Shane was steady as a rock, not giving the chasers hope at any point. When you’re behind by as many as five or six shots and the leader makes a double somewhere, it gives competitors a huge shot of adrenaline and they all say “game on.” Shane never let that happen.
2. Rory McIlroy missed the cut but made a valiant effort in front of his home fans on Friday, coming up a shot short from sticking around for the weekend. In assessing McIlory’s first-round 79, Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee said, “The word is choking.” Fair take?
Zak: I’m going to ignore this major for the case of McIlroy. I think there was too much going on for him, and perhaps that’s exactly what Brandel is referring to. Too much. Rory has succumbed to the spotlight in the last few years at majors, though. Whether it’s the first round, his fifth nine or his final 18, Rory has never been the best in the field. Considering he’s done it before and done it elsewhere, yes, it makes you believe he’s choking. So I’m not going to disagree with Brandel.
Ritter: To me “choking” happens near the end of a competition, when stakes are on the line. I’d call Rory’s flameout a lack of preparation for the moment. He didn’t answer the bell Thursday morning, which was a shocker. Then with nothing to play for he predictably lit it up on Friday. He just didn’t seem ready, until he WAS ready, but then it was too late.
Sens: Not trying to be coy here, but this is pretty much semantics. “Choking” has especially harsh connotations, but there’s no doubt he got thrown off by the moment, which wasn’t really a moment but a long build up of intense pressure. Chamblee’s term isn’t unfair; it’s just blunt. Not to take anything away from Lowry’s amazing win, but I think it’s also fair to say that he and McDowell were probably fortunate in a way to have Rory around, drawing so much attention as the great local hope. They drafted into the event behind him as he took the brunt of expectations as the island’s best chance.
Marksbury: I really felt for Rory, but I do think Brandel was right. With all the expectation placed on Rory this week (fairly or unfairly), he failed to rise to the occasion on Thursday. His second-round resurrection, though, was one of the best things to happen this week. It was great to see him come back like that, and he was as classy as ever after both rounds. The whole debacle revealed his humanity on a whole new level, and made me like him even more.
Bamberger: I can’t use the word myself but it’s a free country and these are big boys. Seems to me Rory cares too much but how do you try less?
Kerr-Dineen: Yeah, it’s fair. Harsh, but fair. The pressure got to Rory, but how could it not? Nobody has ever been under as much pressure as Rory was this week. He hit a handful of poor shots at the worst possible time because of it.
Dethier: I guess he’s right. I think everybody sympathizes with McIlroy because the thought of being in his shoes on that tee with those white stakes inspires terror.
Wood: Impossible to say. We are all guessing, but I wouldn’t use that word. I tend to agree more with what Jeff said. I think there are two ways to approach a round, especially at the beginning of an event. One: meticulous to the point of obsession. “I’m going to hit this club off this tee with this wind, and it’s going to stop eight yards short of the left bunker, from where I’ll hit this club to 15 feet below today’s hole location, etc., for eighteen holes.” Two: Warm up, head to the first tee and just let things develop. See how it goes. Like I said we are all guessing and no one knows what goes on inside a player’s head except the player. My guess is Rory may have had option two going on, and after that sucker punch on the opening hole, a huge shock to his system, was unable to right the ship on Thursday. It would be fascinating to visit that alternate reality where Rory stripes 4 iron down the middle of the fairway, strides off the tee with the overwhelming support of the crowd and see what happens for the rest of the week.
3. Xander Schauffele ripped The R&A after alleging that it leaked his failed driver test at The Open but not the results of other drivers that also failed. (He was one of 30 randomly selected for testing.) “They pissed me off because they attempted to ruin my image by not keeping this matter private,” he said, adding that he was jokingly called a “cheater” by a fellow pro. Two big-picture questions: (1) Should failed equipment results like this be made public to avoid such messiness? (2) Schauffele said he doesn’t think it’s his duty to personally ensure his driver is conforming. Agree?
Zak: Yes, this situation feels similar to a corked bat (like Andy Johnson wrote on Twitter). I think most things are better when brought to the public. We ask the appropriate questions: was it non-conforming by 1%? .1%? 3%? It’s not right to just sweep this under the governing body rug. I’m with Xander to an extent. I don’t know if it’s fair for him to check every week if his driver is conforming. That’s why he signs a deal and some of his likeness to Callaway — they’ll have people take care of it. But if Xander has been pimpin’ that Epic Flash for two months without issue, should Callaway be out hawking him on the range this week saying “Hey, buddy, we gotta get that driver head into our bucket of water before you tee it up.” Thankfully, other people make these rulings because I can’t quite seem to.
Ritter: Yes, publicize it. This would also spark players to take ownership of their gear, because — wait for it — they wouldn’t want a failed test to become public. The idea that a player isn’t responsible for his gear would immediately dissolve if disclosure became the norm.
Sens: Well said, Jeff. As much as a corked bat, the incident made me think of DeflateGate. Unlike a lot of this country, I don’t think Brady was trying to cheat (Pats fan here, so consider the source). But athletes at that level are too attuned to what they’re doing to not have some idea of what’s going on. Just as Brady must have thought, “Wow, I like the feel of this football,” Schauffele must have thought, “Dang, I love this driver.” But it wasn’t in either of their interests to go seeking out an equipment test. They liked what they had and they went happily with it. As Jeff says, if you make testing and publicizing the norm, questions about what the player should or shouldn’t know go away. Another question, though: if you want to make sure everyone is playing by the same rules, why not test the drivers of all 156 players? Don’t tell me it would take too long. That strains belief.
Marksbury: Totally agree, Josh. Why the cloak-and-dagger secrecy when this is obviously a huge issue? And it really is unfair to the player who gets nailed when others may be playing the same equipment but aren’t tapped for testing and are thereby free to continue on. As far as player responsibility goes, how is any player supposed to know whether or not a club is conforming? Do they have the ability to test the equipment themselves? It seems like this falls within the realm of manufacturer duty, in conjunction with the Tours and the governing bodies.
Bamberger: It is the golfer’s responsibility to make sure his or her clubs comply but in my limited experience virtually none ever do, they assume that the manufacturers give them conforming clubs. I have heard that there was a near-epidemic of non-conforming drivers in play from certain manufacturers but I had chalked that up to Tourtalk but now I am much less sure and much more suspicious. All the failed clubs should be announced. I don’t think for a minute Xander was willfully cheating but the good thing that can come out of this will be for players to be more diligent about checking their own clubs and calling out instance where they think other players have nonconforming clubs.
Kerr-Dineen: I have a car. Part of the responsibility of owning that car is taking it to an emissions test. It’s a super annoying waste of time, but I do it because I can’t do it myself, and if I don’t I’ll get in trouble. Xander doesn’t get to absolve himself of responsibility just because it’s annoying, or inconvenient. He has a responsibility to make sure the equipment he’s playing is up to code, and if it isn’t, he should suffer the consequences.
Dethier: The most interesting part of this whole saga was what it said about Xander Schauffele: he’s found a voice. Brooks Koepka and Justin Thomas have spoken this year about how they needed to build up some cache before they spoke their mind freely. Feels like Xander has made that same leap now.
Wood: Lots of talk about this last week. Xander is a stand up guy, and there is NO POSSIBILITY he was even thinking his driver was non-conforming in any way. Anyone who even jokes about him cheating is wrong on every level. The companies all test their driver heads with the exact same equipment used by The R&A and the USGA, and I can promise you none of the drivers test over the line when they are put in the players’ hands. There’s just too much at risk. The problem is, the same type of machine in different hands can produce different numbers. If it comes out of the Callaway trailer measuring a legal 248 on their machine, it can measure an illegal 262 on The R&A’s machine in a different tester’s hands. You can also take the same head and put in a different shaft or inject a little goop into the head (technical term meaning, well, goop) and it will measure differently. I feel like the governing bodies are trying to do something (limit how far professionals can hit a golf ball) by making others responsible. Do you want real limits? Shrink the driver head, shorten the ball, end of story. Sorry, but the engineers at club companies are always going to find a way unless you put obvious restrictions on things. The speed limit on a lot of the highways where I live is 70 miles per hour, but even my 2000 4-Runner with 238,000 miles on it can do 90. Want a real speed limit? Don’t build engines that can get to 71.
4. Tiger Woods said his game wasn’t ready for Portrush, and he was right. He shot 78-70 and missed the cut and now plans to take a couple of weeks off before he gears up for the FedEx Cup Playoffs. Woods has played just four events since his Masters triumph, and he didn’t contend in any of them. Given his fragile physical state and what we’ve seen from him since April, how likely is it that Woods’ Masters win will be his last major title?
Zak: Very likely. Take it on everything we know. He beat a limited field of about 60 good players on a course he understands better than anyone. It was a PHENOMENAL win. Of course, he could win a Masters again over the next 10-12 Masters, if healthy. That caveat feels more important now than ever. Warm U.S. Opens and PGAs seem like plausible wins, but if that Tour schedule amounts to just one or two non-major starts in the summer, I think we’ll see a lot of what we saw this week. Up-and-down play leading to a finish around the cutline. One last thing: majors are HARD!
Bamberger: Well said, Sean, and there won’t be any warm PGAs for a while. Seems done. Also, whatever you say about Tiger Woods, he’ll prove you wrong. One of his best traits.
Wood: I like what Michael said. Make sure everyone tells him he’s done and he’ll punch the ticket again. I think vintage Tiger could win every single major he entered because he was probably the best at every aspect of the game at that time. Now, I think he would even admit he needs to pick his spots more. Before, he had to show up to win. Now, things have to line up. I don’t think he’s won his last major.
Ritter: I’d say 50% chance the Masters will be his last, but it has nothing to do with fatigue or desire and everything to do with sustained health. His back remains a wild card for these 250-plus days until the next Masters and everything thereafter. How long can this fusion surgery hold up?
Sens: Have we learned nothing about writing off Tiger’s prospects? As Jeff says, it’s all about his health. Bad back or not, it was always going to be tough to win again against the depth of talent out there, but if he can manage his physical woes, why couldn’t he compete in the other majors as well? It was only a year ago that he contended in both the British and the PGA.
Kerr-Dineen: He’ll win one more. Probably another Masters. It’s easy to panic at any given moment with Tiger. But in the cold light of day, this week has reiterated that Tiger can still win, but the conditions have to be exactly right in order for him to do so.
Marksbury: I learned my lesson about naysaying Tiger. Who could have predicted what we saw from him over the past year? He’ll win at least one more. Tiger has an incredible ability to rise to the occasion, it’s just that the occasions are getting fewer and farther between because of his age, health, inability to play well in cold weather, etc. He’s going to pick his spots. I just hope he can get some decent reps in before next year’s majors, because simply playing a major schedule and basically nothing else is not going to get it done.
Dethier: A weird subplot of Woods’ Masters win is this: It might have been the first time he actually enjoyed winning a major. Being satisfied — I imagine that’s a foreign, complex feeling for Woods. But I also think he’s one of the 10 best golfers in the world. I like his chances to win again.
5. Slow-play critic Brooks Koepka had semi-nice things to say about the pace of Sunday playing partner J.B. Holmes, although Kopeka was irked by how Holmes seemingly didn’t prepare for his shots beforehand. “He doesn’t do anything until his turn,” Koepka said. “That’s the frustrating part. But he’s not the only one that does it out here.” How much do you suspect Holmes’ pace of play threw Koepka, who started with four straight bogeys and shot 74, out of his rhythm?
Zak: I think a little, but nothing that Brooks, a smart, focused human being can’t handle. What Koepka said is very on point with the pace-of-play issue in professional golf. Moments before Brooks tapped the imaginary watch on his wrist Sunday, per Will Gray, J.B. was standing next to his caddie, waiting for Brooks, just really hanging out, waiting to get his hand-cleaned Titleist back. J.B. was not 1) behind the hole, 2) behind his ball, or 3) reading the putt in any way. That’s the core issue. Only once Brooks played did Holmes move toward his line, replace his ball, walk behind the hole, fix two marks on his line, and THEN plumbob behind his ball. Notably, he stared at his caddie for five seconds after his putt brushed the edge. He was not interested in playing quickly.
Ritter: Brooks may have been out of sorts early, but doesn’t he usually play better when he’s a little ticked off? The pairing was probably worse for Holmes, who trainwrecked to an 87.
Sens: A fast-slow pairing is always worse for the fast player. But if Koepka had been on his game from the start, Holmes’ glacial pace would have been less likely to bother him. As anyone who has ever played with a grinder knows it becomes a vicious cycle. When you’re a little off to begin with, you’re more likely to notice the annoying things, like the dude you’re with. Koepka’s score is ultimately his own responsibility of course, but that doesn’t mean the game doesn’t still need a rigidly enforced shot clock. Long overdue. For everyone’s sake.
Bamberger: The pace of play in golf on every single level is a complete joke. Take away all the semi-nice things Koepka said about Holmes and you have the truth. Walk to your ball thinking about your shot, look out for others, be ready. Play your shot and walk after it. The pace is not even close to where it should be. I once played the Old Course on a busy afternoon in 3.5 hours, even though it was crowded with tourists, and that was considered just normal. Five hours for a threesome — modern life has no tolerance for that, nor should it.
Kerr-Dineen: I’m starting to get sick of all the J.B. Holmes bashing. He’s a slow player, but he’s not the only slow player on Tour, or the sole cause of slow play on Tour. He’s existing in a context that allows him to play at his current pace. It’s on the Tour to fix it.
Marksbury: I think the pouring rain, wind and string of bogeys were a lot more aggravating for Brooks than J.B.’s slowness.
Dethier: I cannot fathom how J.B. is still this slow when so many people make him so aware of his slow play. How has he not made an adjustment by now out of pure shame? I guess it’s because he hasn’t needed to.
Wood: Koepka is too smart and too tough, and his caddie Ricky Elliott is too funny in those moments when nothing seems to be happening, for that to have thrown him. (Example from Ricky last week, after I told him I visited the Titanic museum in Belfast: “I love it here but it’s a bit odd that the most famous thing we’re known for is a ship that sank.”) Michael is right, there is no reason for any of this. Be prepared and no one will care that you take an extra 15 seconds in brutal conditions. But being unprepared and refuse to change anything in your routine is what becomes frustrating. Kevin Na is a perfect example. Everyone knows Kevin used to have his issues, but he’s made a huge effort to get better, to quicken his routine and his pace of play, and he’s earned a lot of respect for that. I think Kevin is great to play with now. It’s frustrating when guys don’t make an effort. At some point you have to start wondering about calling out slow players during a round to protect the field much like you would if you saw them taking a shaky drop from a penalty area.
6. Plenty happened during this historic week at Royal Portrush. Years from now, what will you remember most?
Zak: Because he’ll be perhaps the greatest European player of all-time, I’ll remember Rory McIlroy holding back emotions during multiple interviews after missing the cut by one in his homeland. You wanted to cry with him. He gave us as golf fans everything he had during that second round, which became some of the most entertaining Friday afternoon golf you’ll ever watch. We cannot ask for anything more than that. Look at the World Ranking and count how many people could do that. It’s a short list.
Ritter: Those ovations on the first and last tees for all the Irish players. Just awesome.
Sens: An Irishman winning on the Open’s return to the island after such a long absence. Can’t forget that.
Bamberger: Absolutely, Josh. The Irish have poetry running through their veins and Lowry’s play and the tournament’s outcome was perfect and poetic.
Kerr-Dineen: The roars from the course. The crowd was unified behind one man, and he lofted the trophy at the end of it. He brought two countries together in a magical, beautiful moment.
Marksbury: Lowry’s 63 on Saturday was pure magic. Luke, I think you described it well as we watched some of the coverage in the media center. He was so in the zone, and the crowd was SO with him, that it was like he was just riding this awesome wave of positive momentum. He couldn’t miss. It was a joy to watch and cemented my belief that there was no way he’d let this one slip away on Sunday. And he didn’t.
Dethier: Completely egocentric, but I’ll remember our post-work walks from the course to downtown. I’d never been to this part of the world, and these 15-20 minute strolls from dreamy golf course to lovely, lively seaside village are nothing I’ve ever quite experienced. Now, if they’d only serve food past 9 p.m.
Wood: I will remember coming into the week having built Royal Portrush up in my mind to a point where it couldn’t possibly live up to expectations. After hearing from Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell and Rory and Ricky Elliott for years how great this course was, I was fearing a letdown. Then, early Monday morning on my first walk of the place, I got through one, two, three, four, five holes and with each my interest and energy increased. I stood on the sixth tee in beautiful Irish sunshine, looked back down five fairway, up at the sixth green, down the seventh fairway to my right, and then out at the seemingly endless coastline and cliffs to the east and thought “Oh my gosh, this might be my favorite course in the world.” Nothing happened during the week to dispel that thought. Royal Portrush has everything. After doing this for 23 years and thinking you’ve been to all the best courses and seen it all, you don’t expect something like last week to happen. But I think it’s my favorite course in the world.
7. Bonus question! That’s a wrap for 2019’s major season. Time to look ahead! The 2020 Masters champ will be…
Zak: Jordan Spieth. Young man will figure it out by then. And if not…well…
Ritter: Tony Finau keeps popping up in these top fives and he played in the final group at Augusta last spring. He’s ready. I’ll take a shot on him.
Sens: You guys are seriously overthinking this. Koepka.
Bamberger: Thank you, Josh — you speak for me again.
Kerr-Dineen: Matt Wallace.
Marksbury: Koepka, yes.
Dethier: Tiger repeats, obviously.
Wood: The winner of the Masters in 2020 will be who it always is…us.