By Paul Mahoney
Monday evening at St Andrews and four players are staring down to the 18th green of the Old Course from a balcony at the Rusacks Hotel. The giant yellow scoreboard is empty of the names that will start filling up its spaces come Thursday. Dreaming of seeing their name at the top and winning the Open Championship are Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia, Stephen Gallacher and Dustin Johnson. They sat together with Keith Sbarbaro, TaylorMade vice-president Tour Operations to celebrate 15 years of tour domination by TaylorMade drivers from the R300 series through to R15. They shared insight into their preparation for the 144th Open, their love of the Old Course, their favourite driver, the Ryder Cup, and their heroes.
Read the Q&A below:
What does the Open at St Andrews mean to you?
Stephen Gallacher: The Open here at the Home of Golf has something magic about it. There’s always a vibe.
Justin Rose: If you could choose an Open, this would be the one. I’d take any of course. To win at St Andrews, to walk up to that 18th green with a big lead, with a five-shot lead, into that amphitheatre would be special. And what makes St Andrews so great is that it is special for the everyday player, too.
Sergio Garcia: Just hearing the words ‘The Open’ brings chills. It’s the best tournament. To be able to play it here at St Andrews makes it extra special. And I’m hoping for the five-shot lead on the last hole.
Dustin Johnson: It’s my favorite Open. I’ve played most of the venues and this is just a great course – 17 and 18 are always a lot of fun. It’s doesn’t get any better walking up 18 right into town.
What are your expectations?
Stephen Gallacher: Coming to a course that I have done well on with family and friends watching, I am hoping to get the vibe of that. To get into the mix on Sunday would be magic.
Justin Rose: I won the Scottish Open coming into the Open last year. Sometimes it’s not easy to bring your best two weeks in a row. Got some invaluable experience playing last week (at Gullane) playing in that heavy wind. This week it’s going to be important to hole a lot of putts from 20 to 30 feet when the pins are going to be tight.
Sergio Garcia: It’s been a solid year so far. Not amazing. Had good practice sessions last week. Love the way this championship plays. Excited. Make sure it’s good enough to be up there at the weekend and have a chance.
Dustin Johnson: Disappointed with the way I played at Chambers Bay. I had control over my game but once you got on that putting surface, you didn’t have much control. I was hitting them where I wanted to; they just weren’t going. I’m over it. I’m playing well. This is a course that suits me. The greens this week are rolling just fine.
Who helped you fall in love with golf?
Dustin Johnson: My dad was a club pro so I’d go to work with him. In the morning I’d go to the pool, in the afternoon I’d play golf.
Sergio Garcia: Played a lot of golf with my dad when I was little. When I was two or three my dad and mom worked at the golf course in Castellon so I was there all day. I would chip and putt and hit balls.
Justin Rose: My mum bought me my first set of plastic clubs when I was about two. I never put them down. I definitely had a passion for cracking the ball and chasing it and cracking it again. I’d be entertained for hours. Anytime a parent finds something that entertains their kids for hours, they’re pretty keen for them to keep doing it. My dad played a bigger role as I grew up and got distracted by other sports. But he obviously saw a talent there and nurtured it.
Stephen Gallacher: My father was a club captain and uncle Bernard was Ryder Cup captain. He was a big influence when I was about to turn pro. Was lucky enough to play under Bob Torrance for a number of years through the Scottish Golf Union when I was 12 and 13.
What do you love about your TaylorMade drivers since the R300 Series in 2001?
Justin Rose: I was just beginning to make cuts. It was amazing! The evolution of the R Series is when my game took a turn for the better. My best memory of that R360 Ti driver was 2002 and winning the British Masters. Excited to see what the next 15 years holds. We put a lot of trust in them as they do in us. To give up an advantage to another players because of their equipment is something that would really frustrate me. It’s nice to have the peace of mind that we can just go out and focus in our game and don’t have to worry. We are basically covered from driver to ball with TaylorMade.
Dustin Johnson: I remember the R300. I was in high school. I hit one down the 18th and we won the High School Championships. The AeroBurner is my favourite. When you have a driver you are confident in, you swing a little bit freer, so you do pick up some yardage. I love the flight of it. I’ve never really liked playing cuts with a driver but with this new one I can.
Sergio Garcia: My first memory was the R510 then I went to the 580. The R7 that came out in 2004 and 2005 was a really memorable club as well.
Stephen Gallacher: I liked the R9. It had a big head at the time, which was appealing. My fondest one was the R1. That’s the one I used in Dubai to get my second win. With all the settings, you could really get dialled in to what really suits your game. The white head was revolutionary, too.
What’s been the reaction to all the innovation?
Keith Sbarbaro, TaylorMade vice-president Tour Operation
The first time we ever worked on the PGA Tour was the Sony Open in 2000. It was a 144-player field and we had four drivers in play. I think it was Super Steel and Fire Sole. Our products weren’t very good. It wasn’t really fun. But it was the 300 Series that put us on the map. We were the first to have 830 COR. I just remember bringing that driver out that summer and it didn’t matter what ball they were playing, you gave them a 300 Series and they picked up 15 or 20 yards. It was the most fun time we’ve ever had. We won our first driver count a week or two after the Open in 2000. Then since 2001, we’ve won every one at the Open. We just led all the technology. Moveable weight – we were the first ones to do that. The adjustable hosel – we were the first ones to do that. Now everyone’s got one. We were the first ones with a 3-wood that gave you drivable launch conditions with the RocketBallz. And that was revolutionary. Every player picked up 17 to 20 yards. Every company has followed behind us but we continue to lead the way in all technology. It’s been a great 15-year run.
What’s it like to play in the Ryder Cup?
Stephen Gallacher: The best event I’ve ever played in. Lucky to have played in it in my home country. The pinnacle of my career so far.
Sergio Garcia: The closest you get to being on a football team. I’ve never played at the Bernabeu with Real Madrid but fortunately I know what it feels like to play in the Ryder Cup. You can make amazing friends. Everyone opens up. That’s one of the beautiful things we experience that week.
Dustin Johnson: I definitely want to play next year. Just as much as these guys love it, we love it, too. It’s the best event. Pulling for your teammates when most weeks we are rooting against them. It reminds me of playing in college and in the Walker Cup. Always so much fun. I played my first one in 2010 in Wales and Phil and me were in the first match out. I was nervous. It wasn’t really a driver hole but there was no chance I was hitting anything but a driver. I wanted the biggest head I could have so I could make contact. Phil was just laughing at me.
What’s in your Open bag?
Stephen Gallacher: Dropped the rescue club and put in a 2 iron. Changed the bounce on a couple of the wedges because it’s so tight and hard. Knocked about 6 degrees off my lob wedge and a few off my sand wedge so you can get tighter into the ball.
Justin Rose: I’ve put a 2 iron in. When it gets windy you can chase it down, and, into the wind, you still have something that can get more than 220. I normally carry four wedges. Dropping back to three.
Sergio Garcia: I’m a little different. I like to keep my bag as similar as possible through the year because that’s what I know and can control. I can hit the ball quite low when I want so that gives me a little advantage. If I want to chase a 3-iron, I can hit it almost like a 2-iron. I like to keep a 5-wood because there are still some shots into the par-fives, and also from the rough you can hit shots you can’t with a 2, 3, or 4 iron.
Dustin Johnson: I put in a 2 iron and play four wedges like Justin. Here you don’t need that many wedges so you get more out of a 2 iron, especially if it gets windy.
Who’s your golfing hero?
Stephen Gallacher: Seve. Watching him on TV. Unbelievable. Even at the 1995 Ryder Cup when he was struggling. Those first nine holes against Tom Lehman were like Muhammad Ali coming back fighting in his fifties. Such a gutsy performance. He had so much charisma.
Sergio Garcia: Yeah, Seve was amazing. Special.
Justin Rose: Even for English kids, Seve was amazing. Obviously we had Nick Faldo to look up to, and Greg Norman and Nick Price. And when I was 13 and 14, Ernie Els was coming through. I’d like to be DJ for a day. Just a day!
Dustin Johnson: Norman, the Shark. And I was always a Freddie Couples fan. Just loved watching him swing.
How is the Old Courses setting up for you this week?
Stephen Gallacher: Softer and greener than I’ve ever seen it. Peter Dawson (R&A secretary) would have been hoping for a hot baked summer but you can only deal with the hand you get. It’s in unbelievable condition. Still got a bite to it but its more about the wind and where they put the pins. They can tuck them where a 30-foot putt is a good shot. It’s look great for TV but I’m sure they would have wanted it a lot more fiery. But the course is perfect.
Justin Rose: After Chambers Bay, I think we’re all pretty happy to see some green grass. Firm and fast is great but it can get over the top, too, at times. First couple of days at Muirfield (2012) were ridiculous. We couldn’t keep the ball under 400 yards on occasions.
Sergio Garcia: If it’s soft, the R&A can get creative with pin positions. It does play a little easier when it’s green and soft but, like Stevie says, if it gets windy, it gets tougher. The scoring might be a little lower than at a fast Open but it doesn’t really make a difference.
Dustin Johnson: The course is still bouncy; it’s just not crazy. If we get some rain and it gets softer, these greens are so big, they can put the pins where it’s difficult whether it’s soft or not.
What is your longest ever recorded drive?
Sergio Garcia: This year, at the Honda, in the 6th, I hit it right and it landed on a cart path and rolled. It’s a 500-yard par four and I had 45 yards to hole!
Justin Rose: When I am using Trackman, I always look at my carry and my best is 308. Conditions and run out, no idea.
Stephen Gallacher: Biggest is probably 390 in Madeira with a big slope. But pretty similar to Justin and Sergio with my carry. I’ve hit a couple on Trackman 305, 306, 308.
Dustin Johnson: 430 or something. My highest carry is 337.