GOLF – Johnson and Wood to Boost Ryder Cup Confidence
Players who contend in a major championship often suffer mental letdown when they play in a regular tournament the following week. That tendency could count against the market leaders for the Travelers Championship on the PGA Tour. Zach Johnson and Francesco Molinari played well in the US PGA Championship last week without feeling the heat of intense competition during the last round and have games suited to this week’s host course at TPC River Highlands.
Paul Lawrie won the Open Championship in 1999 and has never threatened to win another major championship. That success has given the Aberdeen born golfer many opportunities. His name is in the title of the Aberdeen Asset Management Matchplay at North Berwick. The 64 man competition looks wide open but gives a chance for Chris Wood to win a matchplay event before playing in the Ryder Cup.
This year’s match between the best players from the United States and Europe is being played at Hazeltine National Golf Club at the end of September and early in October. The European team is virtually settled but Martin Kaymer and Tyrell Hatton are pushing for places and Hatton is playing in the States this week. US captain Davis Love has some picks up his sleeve and if he goes for experience Steve Stricker and Jim Furyk have a chance to get the call if they don’t qualify by rights.
The dynamics of the season have been altered by the inclusion of golf in the Olympics. Players like Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia and Padraig Harrington are buying into the concept and making the most of the experience. A more typical view is that expressed by Rory McIlroy who won’t play on the premise of fears about the Zika virus. Ironically he has a home in Florida where several cases of the illness have come to light. Basically most of the best players are not bothered and are using health concerns as a red herring. Golf should not be an Olympic sport and it might not be again soon. The Ryder Cup is the only week in which the team ethic works.
The Travelers Championship is almost an afterthought due to its date in the calendar after the final major of the season and before the Olympics and Ryder Cup. The champion will not be too concerned as the tournament carries full player privileges so the winner will get into everything over the next two years. Zach Johnson won the Open last year so he can choose his events but if Molinari won this week it would change his career and he does gave the skills to contend.
River Highlands is one of those artificially designed courses that are basically the same but provide good viewing. The best spectating course in the world is Royal Birkdale as the huge dunes provide great locations to watch the golf and grandstands are not needed on most holes. Those expensive man made courses in the States are designed but still can’t compare to the natural splendour of links land on the North West coast of England (where I live). Scotland has the odd decent links course too.
This week’s host venue in the States puts a premium on accuracy over distance. It is a second shot course and hitting greens in the correct number of shots is a key skill. Players must also putt well and scramble effectively to compensate for missing the greens. Course management will be key and knowing the best targets from the tees and fairways will bring rewards. However, some risk-reward holes have been created so the champion will need to be more than one dimensional.
Johnson mastered the Old Course at St Andrews in the Open last year and links golf calls upon a full range of skills. The Masters champion from 2007 excels on courses when the big hitters do not have an advantage. River Highlands is the sort of short course that fits his profile and he’s made the cut in eight of his last ten visits. Johnson is currently on a solid run of form and has made the top 20 in his last four outings.
Molinari is a fairways and greens machine who likes shorter course because his relatively short driving is not a huge disadvantage. He keeps popping up on leaderboards without really getting in the mix but playing conditions this week should be right up his street. He had better scores day by day in the PGA Championship and made the top 30 when he first played at River Highlands last year. Johnson will be playing in the Ryder Cup and Molinari could make a late claim by winning this week.
Chris Wood won the PGA Championship in May, the flagship event of the European Tour. He is fourth in the Ryder Cup standings and plays. He has some form in links golf so winning a matchplay event this week by the sea would set him up nicely for his Ryder Cup debut and Molinari could make the team if he wins the Travelers Championship but beating Johnson may be beyond him.