Breakfast Ball, 8/12: Projecting the 2014 Ryder Cup Team Using Paul Azinger’s Pod System.

August 12, 2014 in Breakfast Ball by Chris Chaney

Press Association

On Saturday morning at the PGA Championship, with the Golf Channel set quarantined off from the rain, 2008 Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger joined the set of Live From and spoke on all things golf, including, of course, the Ryder Cup. 

Azinger famously led the United States to their most recent victory in the biennial event in 2008 on the same grounds that the last major of the season was contested. And beings that last week’s PGA Championship marked the last opportunity for US players to rack up automatic qualifying points, the 12-man roster became just a bit clearer as darkness fell in Louisville.

Three weeks from today, 2014 US captain Tom Watson will pick the final three players to round out his team, but the question of who those three players will be remains one that will be kicked around for the next 21 days. Beings that the PGA of America — who is charge of the US Ryder Cup — went off the board to choose Watson for a second time as captain, why not throw out all the stops and do everything in their power to have the best chance to win?

By nearly all accounts, the European team will be the betting favorites when the 24 players are solidified. In fact, European betting house Paddy Power already has the Euros at nearly 1-2 to win the Cup and slightly worse odds to retain it.

Watson was the last US captain to win the Cup on European soil, defeating Bernard Gallacher’s European squad 15-13. Since ’93, the US has won the Cup just twice — in 1999 at Brookline and in 2008 at Valhalla. With that kind of pedigree taking to the Centenary Course at Gleneagles next month, let’s take a look at how the US team could stack up using the last known winning method, Azinger’s pod system.

First things first, we need to understand the pod system. Azinger formed his strategy long before he was the captain and lifted the idea from a documentary he saw on the Discovery Channel about the Navy SEALs, which he would later detail in his book “Cracking the Code.” The Navy broke down the SEAL recruits into small groups to help them learn how to fend for their teammates. Azinger translated that thinking to the Ryder Cup, by and large giving the players ownership over their own team within a team, even allowing the players to make their own captain’s selections.

The thinking behind this is brilliant for a number of reasons, but none moreso than Azinger knowing the type of guys who play for the US. This is not a debate about whether or not the US “wants” the Ryder Cup enough, but certainly it could be argued that regardless, these players don’t want to be embarrassed by their play or the play of a guy they tapped themselves. Azinger tapped into the players’ egos, which in turn led to more accountability and playing for one another.

Azinger broke down his eight automatic qualifiers, plus Steve Stricker — an early captain’s pick. From there, with nine guys, Azinger broke them up into three groups of “like-minded” personalities. Those three groups were then tasked with picking one player each from a group of six to fill out their four-man pod. Throughout the four-session (fifth was rained out) event, players only played with guys from their pod.

So, here’s how the automatic qualifiers of US Team looks today, Aug. 12, broken down into respective pods by yours truly:

Now, with that done, each group would get a pool of six players from which they can select one player to fill out their four-man pod. Running through the standings while keeping in mind the like-mindedness, here are the 18 players available for picks:

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The pool consists of guys from No. 9 (Dufner) in the rankings to No. 39 (Koepka), but all were added with a pod in mind. Just looking at the names, having 18 solid guys with others still left out, could make you think that the US isn’t in as bad of a way as some are portraying them to be. That’s a different argument for a different day. Let’s break down the pods.

An important aspect of the pods, fairly or not, is favoritism. Plain and simple. In this format, guys are going to have to vouch for one another; put their name on the line for the sake of someone else and that should be taken into account just as much as current form.

Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images

Starting with the Bible Boys, there are three names that jump out right away — Simpson, English and Haas. Todd seems to be tapering off after what was a really good stretch of play; Harman, while a winner this year and fellow Georgia Bulldog with Bubba, and Compton, despite an unbelievable story and solid year to match, just don’t seem to have the caché needed.

Ranking the top-3 in the Bible Boys group, Simpson seems the most likely to garner a pick, followed by Bill Haas and then Harris English. English, as a member of the Sea Island Mafia, would be a natural pair with Johnson, but unless he kicks it in in the next few weeks, the two ahead of him seem like tough mountains to summit.

Simpson has the slightest edge over Haas at the minute given his recent form and his 2-1 record with Bubba in the 2012 Ryder Cup where the two dominated two of their three matches together. Haas has not played in a Ryder Cup to this point in his career, although he did play on the 2011 and 2013 Presidents Cup teams. He has a combined record of  3-5-2.

Jamie Squire / Getty Images

In the Steady Eddie pod, again, it seems to be a three-man race. Dufner’s neck injury sounded serious when he backed out of the PGA Championship and he didn’t seem keen on coming back even next season, much less in two months. Chris Kirk goes the way of a Todd, Harman, Compton type and Steve Stricker, for as well as he played last week and all of his experience, may not have five rounds in three days in him.

That leaves us with a strong pool of talent including Moore, Mahan and Snedeker. The latter two of the three played solidly on the weekend at Valhalla, posting T7 and T13, respectively. Moore, for as well as he’s played this season, fell down the leaderboard on Sunday, posting a 3-over par 74.

This threesome seems to have the most to prove and most to gain over the next three weeks in the FedEx Cup Playoffs. A win by any one of the three would be huge, but barring that from happening, let’s rank them from most to least likely: Snedeker, Mahan, Moore. Again, even though Moore has the best résumé of the bunch this season, going off of players willing to put their name on the line for one of the three, more often than not, they’re going to go with proven Ryder Cuppers.

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Lastly, we get to the Young and Fiery. Phil Mickelson will act as the patriarch for this pod, which excuses him from the “young” misnomer. This pod may be the easiest to pick based solely on past Ryder Cup experience and want-to.

For Na, Every, Woodland, Horschel and Koepka, the fire is there. They’re young and talented and want to play for their country, but unfortunately for them, Keegan Bradley is in their pool. The most impressive thing Keegan Bradley did, should he get on the 2014 Ryder Cup team, is make it in 2012. A natural understudy to Mickelson and a explosive competitor, expect Lefty to take over the de facto captainship of this pod. As such, Bradley is the only option.

The pair went 3-0 in team competitions before not playing in the afternoon on Saturday at Medinah in 2012. Both lost in tight singles matches, but are among the most passionate Ryder Cuppers that America has. This pool is the biggest no-brainer of them all and with Bradley starting to show some form over the past few weeks (PGA excluded), he’s got to be the one to come out of this pool.


Breakfast Ball, 8/11: McIlroy’s Mishit Leads to His Fourth Major Championship

August 11, 2014 in Breakfast Ball by Chris Chaney

David J. Phillip / AP

Standing on the 10th fairway, after turning in 1-over par 36, Rory McIlroy was 12-under par for the championship and he needed a spark. 

Just up ahead on the 10th green, Rickie Fowler rolled in a 28-foot birdie putt that moved him alone atop the leaderboard at 15-under par. Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson were both at 14-under and McIlroy needed to make a move lest he be left playing up the final few holes as the daylight waned, the crowd and PGA of America ready to begin someone else’s trophy presentation.

McIlroy had 281 yards, according to Shot Tracker; 284 yards according to his caddie, JP Fitzgerald — either way, a 3-wood. And at the biggest moment of his tournament to that point, McIlroy mishit the red-crowned club just perfectly.

“Necked it!” CBS’ Nick Faldo said right after impact. The shot, hit low and left on the club face, skirted up the left side of the fairway and rolled out some 30 yards in wet conditions to come to rest just outside of seven feet from the cup for eagle. McIlroy would admit to the mishit after the round saying that the ball flight was 30 feet lower and 15 yards left of its intended line. Even still, there was a putt to be holed.

Of course, McIlroy found the stroke. Center cut.

On a week that showed cracks in his armor — drives that made him wait a tick longer before picking up his peg and strutting off the tee box, putts that burned edges and a few puzzling snap hooks — the three-time major champion made it four in near darkness, bubbles of light only coming from broadcast towers, Valhalla’s club house and illegally snapped iPhone pictures.

Some will say he out-dueled a five-time major champion in Mickelson, overpowered an up-and-coming contemporary in Fowler and outlasted a 38-year old Swede in Stenson who is finding the form that made him the money winner on both sides of the Atlantic last year, but what McIlroy really did on Sunday evening in Louisville was confirm his chokehold on the modern game.

Even standing on that 10th fairway down three strokes, McIlroy was never out of the championship. He’s got the “it” factor that people talk about. We’ve always thought he’s had it, despite his wins at majors prior to this week coming by a combined 18 strokes — as if that’s not “it” enough — but McIlroy proved he can win ugly and without his top-level game at the 96th PGA Championship.

On the front nine when nothing was going his way, McIlroy had the same bounce in his step, the same stone-cold look on his face and inevitably, the belief that once one putt goes down, the guys in front of him were in big, big trouble. That putt came on the seventh hole. And then the major championship break he needed came three holes later.

The back nine was a practice in dominance. While first Stenson, then Fowler and ultimately, Mickelson stumbled through the pressure-cooker that is the final few holes at a major championship, McIlroy had putts for birdie (or eagle) on each of the last nine greens, six of which were inside 20 feet.

David J. Phillip / AP

His longest look at birdie on the back nine came on the 18th hole. He had two putts to cover 34 feet. His first stroke took care of 33½ of it and the remaining few inches were an afterthought. When he tapped in, McIlroy let loose a massive right hook and then a primal yell. The belief he held coming into the day was no long that. Instead, it was a certainty. 

“I just knew,” McIlroy said afterward. “I knew that I’d have my chance.”

Turned out, he had nine chances on the inward half and he played the last nine holes in 4-under par. Mickelson, Stenson and Fowler, combined, played that stretch in 1-under. McIlroy ultimately won the championship by the slimmest of margins, but with three holes to play, it was his to lose and at no time did it look like he would.

Now, McIlroy joins Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as the only players to have won four majors before the age of 26 in the last 100 years. Pretty heady company, but the kind that McIlroy has played himself into.

Next on his agenda is a week off in New York and Northern Ireland, then back Stateside for the FedEx Cup Playoffs. From there, it’s the Ryder Cup, the European Tour’s Race to Dubai and defending his victory at the Australian Open in November.

However, that’s small potatoes in the grand scheme of things because next on the major’s calendar is Augusta in 240 days when McIlroy goes for the career grand slam and a chance to join some more heady company. Interestingly enough, we could find ourselves in eight month’s time reliving McIlroy’s shot on the 10th hole at Valhalla with the backdrop of his meltdown on the 10th at Augusta in 2011.

For a while, the 10th hole at Augusta National defined Rory McIlroy in major championships. Three years and four majors later, the 10th hole at Valhalla became just the latest site of McIlroy defining his own legacy.


Breakfast Ball, 8/6: All the Reasons Tiger Should Skip the 2014 PGA Championship.

August 6, 2014 in Breakfast Ball by Chris Chaney

AP

Less than 24 hours before his scheduled first-round tee time, Tiger Woods has yet to register, show up on the grounds or make any statement about his plans to play or not in the 94th PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Ky. 

Withdrawing with 10 holes remaining in his final round of the WGC Bridgestone Invitational last week, Woods boarded Air Tiger, his G5 private jet, and headed back to Jupiter, Fla., where, if agent Mark Steinberg is to be believed, Woods has spent his week getting treatment for back spasms. Having received an extension from the PGA of America after missing the 5 p.m. Tuesday deadline to register, Woods now has until his 8:35 a.m. tee time Thursday to register and stake his claim at a 15th major championship.

At this point, the reasons for why Tiger should not playing far outweigh the reasons why he should. Let’s look at a couple of them.

First and foremost, he’s not going to win. In his last two starts, against fields that were weaker than this week’s — the Open strength of the field, according to the Official World Golf Rankings, was 902; the WGC Bridgestone was 804; this week is 913 — Woods finished solo 69th at Hoylake and was looking at roughly a 50th-place finish before calling it quits. What’s more, Tiger finished 23 strokes (Open) and 18 strokes (through 62 holes at Bridgestone) behind Rory McIlroy, the winner of both events.

McIlroy, along with Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose, are playing some of their best golf of their individual lives, which isn’t even to mention guys like Rickie Fowler, Marc Leishman, Keegan Bradley, Phil Mickelson and Charl Schwartzel who are playing superbly as well. A banged-up Woods has shown no signs of playing up to their level and another set back puts him even further behind those guys.

His game isn’t ready or up to snuff. Valhalla is a ball striker’s golf course, which is to say, it requires solid iron play into the greens. The length of the rough isn’t out of control, so bomb and gouge can work if players keep it relatively close to the fairways. Last week at Firestone, Woods hit 35 of the 62 greens he played. Not consequently, his driver has been about as reliable as his back.

Woods is the play-yourself-into-shape type and the reps, as he likes to call them, simply aren’t there. Has he made progress since his MC at the Quicken Loans? Unequivocally, yet he still hasn’t done enough to risk further injury for one tournament.

CBS

That’s precisely what he has left to play this season: one tournament. With his WD last week, any FedEx Cup points that he would have added to his robust 45-point total disappeared when he got taken off the course in a golf cart. Even if Woods were to play this week and finish in solo second place, he wouldn’t qualify for the first round of the Playoffs. The Wyndham Championship is likely out of the cards and now, so is the Ryder Cup.

US Captain Tom Watson said he’d be happy to pick Tiger if he was “healthy and playing well.” The WD last week as he fell down the leaderboard crossed out both of those caveats.

Speaking of health, why not take all the time he needs and call it a year? Woods admitted that he came back to golf sooner than he would have liked, but the Quicken Loans, which benefitted his foundation, needed a boost. It was only two weeks earlier than he was predicting, but early nonetheless.

Stacking Woods up against guys like Graham DeLaet and Jason Bohn who had the same surgery gives us a general time frame for a return, but nothing set in stone. Woods said on his site when announcing the surgery that it was done for his “long-term health,” so why not take the week and rest of the year off with the long-term in mind?

At 38 years old, Woods still has a decade’s worth of professional golf left and the accompanying major championships. Missing this one with the big picture in mind seems not only the practical thing to do, but the only thing. With no looks at the changes to Valhalla and a one-day scouting trip by his caddie to go on, what makes him think he can make the cut, much less contend?

For those reasons and innumerable others, Tiger Woods should skip the PGA Championship.

Having said that, I fully expect to see him on the driving range tomorrow at 7:30 a.m.


Breakfast Ball, 8/5: Sizing Up Rory’s Biggest Challengers at the PGA Championship.

August 5, 2014 in Breakfast Ball by Chris Chaney

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Heading into the PGA Championship, there is one thing that we know for sure: Rory McIlroy is the man to beat. At a 5-1 favorite in most betting parlors, McIlroy’s run of back-to-back wins at the Open Championship and the WGC Bridgestone don’t have oddsmakers balking at the fact that he can win three in a row.

However, as the PGA of America is happy to point out, their major championship will have all 100 99 of the top-100 players in the Official World Golf Rankings on hand in Louisville. That is, until Tiger Woods drops out. Then there will be 98. Still, a strong field is going to tee it up in the season’s final major, unfortunately no longer known as “Glory’s Last Shot,” making it that much harder — or impressive — what McIlroy is attempting to do.

With the tournament proper just two days away, let’s take a look a few guys that could jump up and snatch the Wanamaker Trophy out from McIlroy’s hands.

As is customary, the 25-year old Ulsterman will play alongside the years’ two other major champions the first two days of the championship: Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson. Both Kaymer and Watson have had their “A” stuff at some point this year, but neither seem to be near that at this point.

Beginning with Kaymer (40-1) and working our back towards the start of the year, the Germanator blitzed the field at Pinehurst to win his second major championship. Remember his first? The PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. So we know he has the type of game for this event, but really, who doesn’t? Big fairways, big greens. Kaymer hits it straight and relatively far, but recent form is worth noting and it’s not very kind. Since the win, he’s mixed a T12 at the French Open with a MC at the BMW, a T70 at the Open Championship and a T56 last week. He’ll be in Bermuda for the Grand Slam of Golf, but he won’t be the one with multiple majors.

Bubba (33-1), you may recall, lost to Kaymer in that playoff in 2010. The long-ball hitter is made for the Masters and PGA Championships. The US Open and Open Championship call for too much from Watson, who can be easily rattled at times. No adverse conditions like he may find in Britain or narrow fairways like at the USGA event makes Watson seem like a good pick to contend this week if he can keep his head.

Keeping that PGA Championship contender/champion trend going, Keegan Bradley (28-1) is looking to be in good form. Coming off of a T4 last week in Akron that, in honestly, could have been a lot better, the 2011 PGA Champion not only wants to back up his first major victory, but also solidify himself on the Ryder Cup team. US Captain Tom Watson said that he did himself a great service by putting a good finish up last week and another Sunday with him in the hunt can only help.

Bradley will be playing alongside buddy and defending champion Jason Dufner (66-1), along with 2009 champ YE Yang (500-1). Let’s not worry too much about YE. And for that matter, Dufner. The Duf has missed the cut in two of his last five tournaments and carded T51 and T66 in his last two starts. Not to mention, Dufner was so fed up with his putter last week that he gave it away to a kid after 10 holes. Add to the equation the extra demands that come with defending and Dufner could be in for a long week.

Getting more into the contenders, you have to begin with Sergio Garcia (16-1). The man who has finished runner-up to McIlroy in both of the last two tournaments is in some of the best form of his life and now he can putt. A happy Sergio is a good Sergio and his off-the-course life is in a great spot. The only thing that continues to wear down Garcia besides McIlroy is some old demons. Can he conquer those this week? We don’t know, but even if he can’t break through and win his first major, he should be looking at another high finish.

If Rory’s the hottest player on the planet and Sergio’s the second, third and fourth have to go to Adam Scott (12-1) and Rickie Fowler (20-1), in some order. To bolster how well McIlroy is playing, consider that Scott was usurped as the No. 1 player in the world after going 1-T4-T9-T5-T8 in his last five starts. Scott is talking tough and saying he’s going to take on three or four more holes per round to try and force the issue. It’s a bold strategy, Cotton. Let’s see if it pays off for him.

Fowler, on the other hand, has gone T13-T2-T2-T8 with those pair of runner-up finishes coming at the pair of Opens. More than an orange with a flatbill, Fowler’s swing changes under Butch Harmon seem to have taken hold and have the Oklahoma State product playing the best golf of his life. The question becomes now, like his good buddy Sergio, can he break through for a big win?

Two other major champions who are coming in mysteriously under the radar due to McIlroy’s ridiculous play are Phil Mickelson (20-1) and Justin Rose (16-1). It’s amazing to think that Phil is a darkhorse this week, but a strong round of 62 to finish out the Bridgestone has to leave a good taste in his mouth. Interestingly enough, Mickelson wasn’t expecting much coming off of a 3-over par start to the tournament, but like his Ryder Cup partner Bradley, Phil wants to make the US squad on merit.

On the other side of the coin, Rose is simply being overshadowed by some stellar play above him. The Englishman has won two of his last four events. The betting favorite heading into the Open Championship, it’s not like Rose no-showed; he ended up tying for 12th. A good week on the greens and Rose could be up there with McIlroy, Scott and the others.

The only other two players going off at better than 30-1 are Henrik Stenson (25-1) and Matt Kuchar (28-1). Both still in search of their first major championship are in form to contend, but neither look ready to break through this week. Ironically enough, each of their game’s seem to be right there, but mistakes coming up and biting them have them falling down leaderboards as quickly as they climb them. They’re seeming like on the cusp, but not quite ready just yet.

Others worth look for this week: Jim Furyk (33-1), Patrick Reed (66-1), Charl Schwartzel (35-1) and Mark Leishman (40-1). All four are coming off good weeks at Firestone and seem to be just that cut above Stenson and Kuchar in terms of ready to win the big one. Furyk, especially, has been hanging around for a long time and just seems to be there every week. Reed is back to playing top-caliber golf after having his first child, Schwartzel is always a beautiful swinger capable of winning any week his putter gets hot and Leishman is among the most prolific birdie machines on the planet right now.

Two days until play gets under way. This is going to be fun.


Breakfast Ball, 8/4: Rory Looking Unstoppable Heading Into PGA Championship. And Consistent.

August 4, 2014 in Breakfast Ball by Chris Chaney

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Rory McIlroy has the gift of making golf look very easy at times. His rhythmic, yet powerful swing is as enviable a move as there is in professional golf at the moment and heading into the final major championship of the 2014 season, McIlroy is the odds-on favorite to win his second consecutive major.

Coming off of back-to-back victories at two of the biggest tournaments of the year — the Open Championship and the WGC Bridgestone Invitational — McIlroy is playing on a level of his own. For the first time since the mid-2000s, the question of player vs. the field is relevant. Furthermore, a  question now becomes not how well can McIlroy play, but how long can he sustain his game at this level?

By his own and others’ admissions, McIlroy is a streaky player. Here’s what Tiger had to say about McIlroy on Sunday at the Open Championship.

Well, as you can see, the way he plays is pretty aggressively. When he gets it going, he gets it going. When it gets going bad, it gets going real bad. It’s one or the other. If you look at his results, he’s kind of that way. Very similar to what Phil does. He has his hot weeks, and he has his weeks where he’s off. And that’s just the nature of how he plays the game – it’s no right way or wrong way.

Turns out, unsurprisingly, McIlroy likes the way he plays the game.

I’m not afraid of my inconsistencies. It’s something that I actually quite welcome, and I know that my good is very good and my bad can sometimes be very bad. At the end of the day, it all levels out. I’ll have my good weeks and I’ll have my bad weeks. But definitely, if you said there’s one thing I’d like to get better at, it would just be a little bit more consistency in there. Hopefully, I’m on the right path to try and do that.

The debate surrounding his consistency is for another day, but there’s no doubt we’re in the midst of a Good-Rory run. What’s patently petrifying for the rest of the field in this week’s PGA Championship, the upcoming FedEx Cup Playoff events and at the Ryder Cup is that this has been the Best Rory to Date. McIlroy has won his past two events, both of which boasted the two highest total rankings of any tournament this season according to the Official World Golf Ranking, by a combined four shots. (In the most perfect of ironies, Sergio Garcia has placed in, at worst, a share for second in both events.)

Leading the field in driving distance (317 yards a pop), hitting just under 80 percent (57 of 72) of his greens in regulation, ranking second in birdies made and tied for first in bogey avoidance is a winning recipe. His 1.359 strokes gained – putting was seventh in Akron. Combined that with the display put on at Royal Liverpool two weeks prior where McIlroy was tied for fist in driving accuracy and greens in regulation and second in eagles made, fourth in birdies made and eighth in bogey avoidance, the 25-year old is a 5-1 favorite heading into this week.

Mentally, McIlroy is winning tournaments and stowing away trophies like he’s they’re apples at the grocery store with no real regard for the meaning that they hold. That’s for December and January, he says. He doesn’t have a goal in mind for number of wins or majors he wants to capture this year, just to win the every tournament he tees it up in.

Hmm. That sounds familiar.

Either way, McIlroy’s form over the past few months, excluding the weird Friday rounds, has been growing and improving with no sign of having reached its peak yet. That’s good news for golf fans and Rory McIlroy.

That’s really bad news for everyone trying to beat him.