Jonas Blixt: The $900,000 Flop Shot

The 17th hole at CordeValle Golf Club is almost perfect. In the Open on Saturday and Sunday, they moved the tee way up on the short par-4 so that if you could hit your tee shot about 285 yards, you could drive the green. For PGA Tour players, that meant that just about everybody in the field had a chance.

But this is not of tee shot of no consequences. The risks were consequential enough that two guys in the final groups, Alexandre Rocha and John Mallinger, chose to lay up with irons off the tee and tried to make birdie with their wedges (Rocha succeeded, Mallinger didn’t).

But the rest of them all let it fly. And it was fun to watch.

The reason the design of the hole is almost perfect starts with that pond that fronts the entire green; any attempt to drive the green is all carry. But the reason it’s enticing to try — assuming that you can hit it that far — is that the green has a pronounced upslope on the back of the green. You don’t have to worry about your drive ricocheting off the back of a flat green. The ball will roll up to the back of the green…and then roll back down to the hole on the flatter front. Except for two guys.

There’s a rookie starting to find his way late in the season, Jason Kokrak. Until Sunday, he had missed 14 of 24 cuts and made a mere $277,000. His best finish was a T9 way back at Pebble Beach. But everyone knew he was going to be good. Why? Because he won twice last year on the Tour, finished in the Top 25 at the end of the year and earned his Tour card.

But the other reason they knew he was going to be good was because he can hit it a ton; the guy is a Neanderthal. The par-3 16th was set up to play 219 on Sunday.  He hit 8-iron. And it landed pin high! 219 yards! Everyone else was hitting 5- and 6-irons.

And on the 17th, when everyone else was hitting driver, he hit 3-wood…and flew it just into the edge of the rough at the back of the green. Fortunately it hopped up, fell back onto the green and rolled down to the pin level. It was a good demonstration of how luck can be such a huge factor in the game. Kokrak demonstrated how talent counts for a lot too: he made the putt for eagle.

The other guy who flew the green was the eventual winner, Jonas Blixt. As I wrote in yesterday’s post, I’ve been writing about Blixt for a while now. The first time was when I noted that he’d finished 5th in the 2011 Tour Championship (want to know something funny? Kokrak finished 4th).

The next time was when he finished T3 to Jason Dufner’s second victory at the HP Byron Nelson in Dallas. And most recently when he was tied for the lead in Las Vegas after the first two rounds, “Jonas Blixt: Knocking on the Door.” And just yesterday, I ended a brief, final-group synopsis of him with, “A real firecracker, this one.”

And the 17th hole proved why. He didn’t get as lucky as Kokrak did, his ball flew over the green and stuck in deep rough:

It was a bad lie.  It was one of those that — sometimes you can get a good lie in the rough and you can kind of fluff it up and get some check on it; this one was terrible.

So I told my caddie, I got to put a full swing on it.

The reason he had to put a full swing on it was not to gouge it out of the rough, it was because he had to hit the most dangerous shot in golf, the towering flop shot. And the only way that you can do that is by opening the blade as wide as possible for extra loft, playing the ball forward in your stance for still more loft and then swinging the club as fast as you can so that when the ball launches basically straight up, it has just enough of a forward vector to travel a relatively short distance and land softly on the green.

I tried to land it on the bottom of the [slope].

Actually, just beyond the bottom of the slope so that, without any backspin, it would land on the flatter part of the green slowly roll down to the hole.

There are a number of reasons this is such a high risk shot. The clubhead needs to be accelerating under the ball as fast and freely as you can make it go without flinching. If you chicken out, the right hand will catch up to the left and the ball gets bladed into the pond, perhaps skipping like a flat stone before it and your round sinks. If the rough grabs the clubhead going through, the club will slow down, deloft it and there will be a perfect concentric ripples in the middle of the pond. And then there’s the infamous chunk shot; you hit it fat, move it a couple of ineffective feet and still have the same problem.

All of this made all the more difficult for Blixt because he had a downhill lie; you have to avoid all of these pitfalls with your weight leaning down the hill, all the while maintaining your equilibrium as the club swings from one side of your body to the other. On really steep hills, you sometimes have to give yourself up to stay in the shot; once the clubhead is through the ball, you many end up striding or jogging down the hill after it.

Blixt heroically rose to the occasion, stayed in the shot and it was a thing of beauty, very high and coming almost straight down just a little short of the flats:

At least it stayed on the green and, I mean, the ball came out really good.  It just didn’t check like I thought — knew it was going to do.

The ball rolled 7½ feet below the hole, he saw the line as it rolled by and made it coming back up the green for his birdie, the birdie that won his first tournament on the PGA Tour. The fact that I would devote an entire post to this shot is a measure of its greatness.

He did have to make a 4-footer on 18 to two-putt up and over a mound from 38 feet, but since he hadn’t three-putted in 242 holes and he was completely “in it,” there wasn’t much risk that he would miss. The streak is now 243 and he won by one shot over Kokrak and Tim Petrovic.

I’ll have more to say about Mr. Blixt and some of the other players in tomorrow’s post.

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