Sunday
Sep172017

Leishman brings it home

Writing from Lake Forest, Illinois

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Vindication.

Marc Leishman earned that along with the title of BMW Championship winner on Sunday.

Two weeks ago Monday, Leishman blew up on the back nine of TPC Boston, allowing Justin Thomas to pass him and win the second tournament in the PGA Tour’s playoff series.

He’d won tournaments – the Travelers in 2012 and the Arnold Palmer Invitational earlier this year – but Leishman, for better or worse, was better known for dropping a playoff to Zach Johnson in the British Open at St. Andrews and finishing tied for fourth in the 2013 Masters, where he flirted with trying on a green jacket on the back nine.

It was more like a strait jacket.

This one, he would not lose.

This one, Leishman won going away, scoring a Western Open / BMW record 261 with a final-round 67 at Conway Farms Golf Club, shoving Tiger Woods (2007) and Jason Day (2015) aside. His 23-under-par mark matched the record set by Dustin Johnson at Crooked Stick Golf Club last year, when Johnson shot 265 on the par-72 course.

Leishman beat Justin Rose and Rickie Fowler by five strokes in his wire-to-wire triumph. Rose scored 6-under 65 for his 18-under total of 266, while Fowler posted a 67. Twice, Rose closed the gap to two strokes, but with Leishman playing nearly flawless golf – he had two bogeys on Sunday and six for the week to go with 29 birdies – either Rose or Fowler would have needed to shoot 61 to force extra holes.

“I had a big enough buffer to get it done, and I got it done,” Leishman said.

The big 33-year-old Australian who had grudgingly accepted his underdog status, hoping to discard it, can do that now. Winning at Conway Farms not only gives him unparalleled momentum entering next week’s Tour Championship, it moved him to fourth in the playoff race and thus assures him of the FedEx Cup title and $10 million pot o’gold if he wins at East Lake Golf Club next week. (Leader Jordan Spieth and the others in the top five, Thomas, Dustin Johnson and Jon Rahm, also can do so.)

The difference between Labor Day near Boston and Sunday in Lake Forest was simple: This time, Leishman hit the shots where he wanted to and made key birdie putts down the stretch. A snake of a 28-footer on the par-4 15th followed by a 10-footer on the par-4 16th to go to 22-under, extending his lead over Rose to three strokes, elicited fist pumps from the usually placid Australian, especially on No. 16.

“I’d say that was a little bigger than the one on 15 because it gave me a four-shot buffer at the time,” Leishman said. “You’ve got to do something drastically wrong to lose a four-shot lead with two to play.”

Sort of how he threw away Boston, though the lead wasn’t as large. That annoyance is now buried, and Leishman can look ahead to the Tour Championship.

“I had my sights set high for the FedEx Cup and trying to get into the top five,” Leishman said. “It’s nice to have the (J.K. Wadley and BMW) trophies there, and be in that top five, and if I have another good week next week, who knows what might happen?”

Rose rued squandered opportunities.

“I went as far as I could,” Rose said. “I missed the fairway on 14 and didn’t birdie 15. Those two holes didn’t work out for me.”

Fowler frittered away chance after chance following birdies on the first two holes.

“I needed a couple more on the front nine,” Fowler said.

Day, who nipped at Leishman’s heels all week, scored 2-under 69 with a bogey at the last to finish fourth at 16-under 268. Matt Kuchar and Rahm tied for fifth at 15-under 269. Defending champion Dustin Johnson scored 7-under 64 to finish tied for 33rd at 8-under 276.

The Tour Championship battle

Tony Finau’s chip-in birdie for a closing 7-under 64 exemplified the tournament-within-a-tournament that is the scrap to advance to the Tour Championship. He entered the week 39th but jumped to 24th by tying for seventh. Sergio Garcia, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay, the latter with an 11-foot birdie on the 18th hole, climbed into the top 30 and get to play East Lake, while Louis Oosthuizen, Henrik Stenson, Brendan Steele and Bill Haas fell out of the top 30 and saw their season end abruptly.

Phil Mickelson ended up 34th, but the PGA Tour’s statistical wizards figured out that one saved stroke somewhere along the way this season would have been good enough to make next week’s party. The competition is that close.

Around Conway Farms

Ollie Schniederjans was even par for 17 holes on Sunday and finished with a 77, thanks to a septuple-bogey 11 on the 18th hole. A tee shot into the left hay opened the festivities, and his second shot went further left and was lost. He dropped and plunked his fourth shot into the creek. Another shot into the rough was followed by another shot into the creek. By now, Schneiderjans just wanted to go to the airport. He whacked his ninth shot on the green and two putted. He finished 66th at 2-over 286. ... Sergio Garcia needed 20 minutes to get a ruling when his second shot on the 18th ended up in the creek near the green. He eventually made par, while Mickelson, his fellow competitor, quietly steamed en route to making a birdie. ... Wesley Bryan opened the day with a round of Speedgolf, or something close to it. He whipped around Conway Farms in 88 minutes, scoring 2-under 69 before most of the estimated 26,000 spectators had assembled. ... The 69-player field averaged 69.116 strokes for both the final round and the week. Only 50 over-par rounds were recorded during the week. ... Don’t be surprised if the Tour Championship starts moving about the landscape beginning with the 2018-19 season, even though it’s anchored at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta and its two major sponsors, Coca Cola and Southern Company, are headquartered there. ... Next year’s Western Open / BMW will go east to Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown Square, Pa., near Philadelphia, on Sept. 6-9. It will be the second Western played in Pennsylvania. The 1959 edition at Pittsburgh Field Club, in which Mike Souchak edged Arnold Palmer, was the first. It will be the easternmost Western / BMW, surpassing the 1948 tournament, won by Ben Hogan near Buffalo, N.Y.

Tim Cronin

Saturday
Sep162017

Moving Day becomes Groundhog Day

Writing from Lake Forest, Illinois

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Ken Venturi must be spinning in his grave. But Bill Murray would have loved it.

It was Moving Day at the BMW Championship, and nobody moved.

The third round at Conway Farms Golf Club opened with Marc Leishman leading and Jason Day and Rickie Fowler tied for second.

It ended with Leishman leading and Day and Fowler tied for second.

It was more like Groundhog Day.

Leishman is at 19-under-par 194 after a 3-under-par 68. Day and Fowler each scored 1-under 70 to sit at 14-under 199 entering Sunday’s final round. The five-stroke lead Leishman enjoys matches the lead Day had at Conway Farms going into the final round two years ago. In other words, Leishman has one hand on the J.K. Wadley Trophy, and the engraver is making sure there’s no K in Leishman’s first name.

Behind the three at the top are, to quote Capt. Renault, all the usual suspects. Justin Rose, winner of the BMW the last time it was played at Cog Hill, alone in fourth at 12-under via a bogey-free 5-under 66. Jon Rahm, Matt Kuchar and Ryan Moore among a sevensome tied for fifth at 11-under.

Rahm had the best round among those suspects, a 6-under 65 to climb from 29th place, but even that wasn’t low enough to make a significant move. Eight strokes behind going into the final round, he and the others at 202 are playing for second unless Leishman collapses.

Say, like he did at TPC Boston on Labor Day, where he fired a back-nine 40 on Labor Day and watched Justin Thomas run by to grab the trophy.

Leishman, who can match Day’s wire-to-wire victory of two years ago, said, as might be expected, that the key was in putting four solid rounds together, but noted, “After what I did at the Dell, there’s determination to finish this one off, and my game is in a better spot. I always tell my wife, if I have a bad round, give me 10 minutes. That one probably took a day.”

Much of Saturday was a display of inertia on the leader board. Aside from Fowler’s eagle on the par-4 first hole – a 24-foot putt from the fairway after a 332-yard drive – there were more pars than anything else. Day hit nine fairways and eight greens en route to fashioning his 70, Fowler didn’t make a putt longer than eight feet in posting his 70, and Leishman plodded along to his 3-under reading, getting up-and-down from the right rough for a birdie 4 at the last.

“It was a bit of a grind out there today,” Day said. “The greens started to get a little firmer, the fairways started to get a little firmer.”

Which partially explains his 366-yard drive on the 18th hole, which yielded only a par 5 when he bunkered his approach. 

Rahm needs to repeat his jump on Sunday to make it a fight, but it won’t be easy. The last player to blow a five-stroke lead entering the final round was Bob Dickson at Butler National in 1976, though Greg Norman rates special mention for blowing a similar margin with eight holes to play in the first venture to Cog Hill in 1991. The odds on Leishman stubbing his toe in similar fashion are high.

Rahm’s 65 was built on hitting 15 greens in regulation, which begat 27 putts.

“I had to hope to make a couple putts, which I did today,” Rahm said as 20,000 spectators made for their shuttle busses. “I still missed a few.”

Around Conway Farms

Leishman’s 54-hole total of 194 is a stroke off the Western Open / BMW record of 20-under 193, established by Day at Conway Farms two years ago. He went on to win by six strokes over Daniel Berger. ... The scoring average was well under par for the third straight day, at 69.420. Only six holes played over par. ... Louis Oosthuizen went out at 7:30 a.m. as a single and shot 5-under 66, earning himself a fellow competitor in Si Woo Kim on Sunday. Bryan Wesley drops into the go-it-alone spot. ... Sunday’s fun follow is at 11:30 a.m.: Sergio Garcia and Phil Mickelson. Early risers might chase after the 8:46 a.m. duo: Zach Johnson and Rory McIlroy. ... Former U.S. Open champions Lucas Glover and Webb Simpson each fired 6-under 65s.

Tim Cronin

Friday
Sep152017

Leishman leads in BMW's birdieville

Writing from Lake Forest, Illinois

Friday, September 15, 2017

Marc Leishman, with 18 birdies in 36 holes, leading the BMW Championship by three strokes at 16-under 126 at the halfway mark, says of Conway Farms Golf Club, “I don’t think it’s a pushover.”

Perhaps the affable Aussie is just being coy. Or polite.

Conway Farms is a pushover. It was in 2013, when Jim Furyk scored a course-record 59 and red numbers permeated the scoreboard. It was in 2015, when Jason Day opened with a 61, finished on top at 22-under-par 262, and 58 players finished under par.

It is again this time, with Leishman racing ahead of fellow speedsters Day and Rickie Fowler, who share second place at 13-under 129. The field average for two rounds: 68.964, more than two strokes under par.

The PGA Tour’s old slogan, “These Guys Are Good,” certainly applies to this field of elite playoff contenders. But “This Course Is Soft” also works. With tees moved up on several holes, Conway was only 6,916 yards long on Friday.

In the era of Trackman, titanium and multi-piece balls, that might as well be the distance of a par-3 course. The 15th hole, a par-4 with water on the left, was arranged to be a drivable hole on Friday, 275 yards. Everyone in the field went for the green, collecting 39 birdies and an eagle – Fowler bagged it – and the hole averaged 3.478 strokes.

That setup was the exception, but long irons into greens are the exception, except on par 5s. Then, as in the dogleg-left eighth hole, 583 yards for the second round, players are tempted more often than not. Forty of the 69 players went for it in two, and seven hit the green. Only one of the 79 players three-putter, and the hole played a half-stroke (4.507) under par.

Entertaining, it is. The gallery of approximately 22,000 was whooping it up much of the time, no more so than at 1:55 p.m., when Day aced the 188-yard 17th with an into-the-wind 7-iron. BMW donated $100,000 for the Evans Scholars Foundation, and Day – sponsored by Lexus – donated back the car he won for additional scholarship money.

A challenging test of golf worthy of the old Western Open – this is No. 114 dating back to 1899 – or the penultimate playoff battle of the season? Maybe not.

Count Leishman in favor, as someone who followed up Thursday’s 62 with a 7-under 64 should be.

“I think it’s a good course in the respect if you’re hitting really good golf shots and making putts you can go really low, but if you’re off a little bit and playing from the rough, spraying it a little bit, there’s numbers to be had,” Leishman said.

“I think it punishes bad shots and if you’re hitting it good there’s a lot of opportunities to make birdies and eagles.”

Leishman added eight birdies to his original 10. Day scored five birdies, but two eagles – one on the par-5 14th to go with the ace – really catapulted him. Leishman led at daybreak, trailed Day by three strokes when the fellow Australian finished his 6-under 65. Leishman, whose tee time was about three hours later, then raced back by to move up by three himself. Saturday at 12:50 p.m., they’ll play together in the final group.

“Hopefully we can both play well and make a lot of birdies and drag each other along,” Leishman said.

Day’s in form after a time of less-than-scintillating golf. He, for one, saw it coming.

“It has been a while since I’ve been in this position,” Day admitted. “I’m actually heading in the right direction.”

Getting back to his form of 2015, when he moved into the No. 1 ranking with wins in the PGA and BMW, is another thing.

“I don’t even know if I’ll ever get back there,” Day said. “It’s just slowly building. If I can feel like the wins come easy like it was back then, that’s the main goal. Make it feel like ... you’re not really thinking about it.”

Little has come easy for Fowler, who will play with Patrick Cantlay (10-under 132 after a  6-under 65) in the next-to-last group. He still chases a major title, but he tied for fourth at Conway two years ago. Now, after a six-birdie run Thursday and a 64 added to an opening 65, and dominating the back nine, where he’s 11-under, he’s positioned himself smartly.

“It could have been a really low one,” Fowler said. “I didn’t make anything on the front nine.”

Around Conway Farms

Defending champion Dustin Johnson stumbled to a 1-over 72 and earned a 7:52 a.m. tee time. ... Louis Oosthuizen goes off as a single at 7:30 a.m. ... Feature pairings: Jason Dufner and Rory McIlroy (8:55 a.m.), Ian Poulter and Bryson DeChambeau (9:40 a.m.), Sergio Garcia and Paul Casey (10:40 a.m.), and Phil Mickelson and Jordan Spieth (11:30 a.m.). ... The sneaky good round of the day was Francesco Molinari’s 6-under 65 for 9-under 133, earning him a 12:30 p.m. pairing with Stewart Cink. ... Charles Howell III had the day’s high round, a 5-over 76. Of the 138 rounds so far, only 25 are over par. Nobody in the last 14 twosomes on Saturday’s tee sheet has recorded a round higher than par 71. ... Jason Day’s ace aside, Mickelson might have authored the shot of the day, a crisp wedge off an asphalt cart path on the ninth hole to set up a par 4 after hooking his tee shot some 30 yards off line and against a tent. Line-of-sight relief was in the middle of the path, and after placing his ball there, he decided to play it in Mickelsonian fashion, hitting the green and two-putting from 22 feet. ... Adding in Thursday’s estimated crowd of about 20,000, some 42,000 have attended the two tournament days, with larger galleries expected on the weekend.

Tim Cronin

Thursday
Sep142017

Down under back on top in BMW

Writing from Lake Forest, Illinois

Thursday, September 14, 2017

 

Marc Leishman had been all over the map in the first two stages of the PGA Tour’s playoffs, missing the cut in New Jersey and finishing third in Boston, after leading in the latter tournament.

So far at Conway Farms Golf Club, Leishman is trying to chart a new path to the top. He fired a 9-under-par 62 on Thursday and leads by two strokes after one round of the BMW Championship.

That’s sensational, but not unprecedented. It just so happens that two years ago, fellow Australian Jason Day opened with a 10-under 61 and went on to romp to victory at Conway.

Guess who is on Leishman’s heels entering Friday’s frolic? Exactly. Day himself, with a 7-under 64 keyed by four birdies in the final six holes. That’s a bit opposite of Leishman, who was 9-under through 15 holes and parred in.

Either way, each round worked. On a day when the majority of the 70-player field was under par and only four players were 3-over or worse on the par-71 test, the field averaged 68.855. Leishman was almost seven shots better, Day, and fellow 64 shooters Charley Hoffman and Jamie Lovemark nearly five shots better. They chewed the place up like a Vegemite sandwich.

So much, once again, for the tougher Conway Farms. Maybe it was the 20-minute fog delay in the morning, but this Tom Fazio layout rolls over like a puppy wanting its tummy rubbed when the pros show up.

Leishman, for his part, was thinking of the course record Jim Furyk established four years ago: 59.

“It entered my mind for a little bit,” Leishman admitted. “I think anyone who starts going low would get that, but we’re here to do a job and I guess that’s when I concentrate on, trying to play each hole as good as I possibly can, not the end result.”

Leishman poured in 10 birdies in his 15-hole binge, including a 21-footer on the ninth hole to cap an outward 5-under 30, and a 19-footer on the par-3 11th. Aside from a bogey on the par-3 sixth, his round was spotless.

“I’m rolling the ball real well, making all the putts you should and then a couple of longer ones a round,” said Leishman, seeking his second win of the year following victory in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Day, with pal Luke Reardon having replaced longtime caddie Colin Swatton on his bag, all but floated around the course. Maybe it was the new putter in his bag, not the new bag toter.

“Changing to the Ardmore has definitely helped for alignment purposes,” Day said. “I felt like I was a lot more comfortable.”

He should have been, with six birdies and an eagle – that on the par-5 eighth, where he hit his second shot to 3 feet 4 inches, a gimme in a friendly game. Sinking a 21-footer on the 10th hole didn’t hurt either.

Hoffman recorded his 64 despite a pair of bogeys, while Lovemark eagled the par-5 18th to get to 7-under. But the hottest streak of the day belonged to Rickie Fowler, whose 6-under 65 was built on six straight birdies from the 12th though the 17th holes, the last a 64-yard chip-in after his tee shot on the par-3 came up a few feet short of the putting surface. He missed a 14-foot birdie putt in his bid for a seventh straight birdie, which would have tied Hubert Green’s record from the 1985 Western Open, but he’s in good shape, tied for fifth with Keegan Bradley, Tony Finau, Rafa Cabrera-Bello and one Jordan Spieth.

The latter lad went out in 4-under 31 and seemed poised for more of the same on the inward half, but made only two more birdies in his bogey-free circuit of Conway. Spieth, Lovemark, Finau and Phil Mickelson, among those tied for 10th at 5-under 66, were the only bogey-free players among the leaders.

“I felt like I really stole a few shots out of this golf course,” Spieth said.

Mickelson, off his usual high standard much of the year, rallied to finish tied for sixth in Boston, and picked it up from there in his bid to climb up from 36th into the top 30 in the standings to make next week’s Tour Championship.

“I think going bogey-free shows that I’m much more in tune with each shot,” Mickelson said. “I only hit one or two tee shots I wasn’t happy with, and from there was able to recover.”

Mickelson only hit eight fairways, but found 14 greens in regulation and saved par on the other four holes. His approaches were on target. His two longest putts, both birdies, were from 13 and 11 feet on the 12th and 14th holes, respectively.

Finau (39th) and Lovemark (58th) are also scrapping for a top-30 standings placing. At this pace, they’ll squeeze in, but 54 holes remain.

Around Conway Farms

Danny Lee opened with a birdie and parred the second hole, but after his second shot on the third hole, he was on the turf, a bad back acting up so painfully that he was forced to withdraw. He was in the day’s last twosome with Anirban Lahiri. ... Defending champion Dustin Johnson shot even-par 71 and is tied for 49th. ... The field scoring average of 68.855 is the third-lowest in Western Open / BMW Championship history, and second-lowest of the nine rounds played at Conway Farms, behind only the 67.928-average second round two years ago, played under lift, clean and place conditions. ... Jason Day powered the day’s longest drive, a 367-yard blast on the par-5 eighth hole. It set up his tight approach and eagle putt. 

Tim Cronin

Wednesday
Aug232017

Schumacher roars from behind to win Illinois PGA

Writing from Medinah, Illinois

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Adam Schumacher had a goal driving into Medinah Country Club on Wednesday morning.

Make the top 10 in the 96th Illinois PGA Championship and advance to next year’s National Professional Championship, the PGA’s club pro fiesta.

Schumacher did much better than that. He won the title, firing a 2-under-par 69 on Medinah’s windblown No. 1 Course to come from six strokes back and pass three players, including overnight leader Jim Billiter, to capture the Jim Kemper Cup, pocketing $11,700.

“People were saying that everyone was struggling, so I just kept grinding, getting up and down for pars when I missed the green,” Schumacher said. “And it kept paying off.”

The 26-year-old assistant at Indian Hill Club totaled 4-under 209 across the three rounds, and had a little more game than just saving par. He birdied the first and third holes to climb back into the fight while Billiter was stumbling to bogeys on the second and third, the beginning of a treacherous 6-over 42 outward nine.

Billiter would end up with an 9-over 80 for 1-over 214, tying for fifth and finishing five strokes in arrears of Schumacher, and yet was still in contention after birdies on the 13th and 14th holes, the first a self-described “miracle.”

Schumacher cooled off a bit, bogeying the seventh and 10th holes, but a binge of three birdies in five holes on the 11th, 12th and 15th helped break a tie with Dakun Chang and carried him to the title.

““I hit one on the water on 10 and knew I had to get a couple back,” Schumacher said. “On 11, I hit driver off the tee and had 86 yards to the back pin, and hit it to 10 feet. The next hole, I hit driver to 120 yards and I hit it to five feet. That got me feeling a little better.”

While he was dropping those putts, Billiter was reeling, and so was Chang, who started the day at 6-under and two strokes behind Billiter. Chang birdied the par-4 third but doubled the par-3 fifth and added a bogey on the par-3 seventh. He turned in 4-under, but Schumacher soon made up the stroke difference, and when Chang triple-bogeyed the devilish 13th, a 295-yard lure for those trying to make eagle, he was out of the chase.

Walker was still in it despite a double-bogey 7 on the ninth, and birdied the 13th to move to 1-under, where he stayed to finish second with a 73 for 1-under 212.

Billiter, quite a bit faster than Walker, tried to stay out of his way as the holes ran out.

“Brett was playing great, so you don’t want to rush him,” Billiter said. “You’re always slower when you walk. I’m an inpatient guy, so I was rushing a little bit. I didn’t want to get ahead of him, so out of respect for him I just played when it was my turn.”

Chang and Doug Bauman, the 60-year-old veteran from Biltmore, tied for third at even par 213. Bauman scored 2-over 73, including a birdie on the 13th and a tremendous par featuring a second shot through a tree on the par-4 16th.

“I knew after about seven holes that we were close, and Adam was playing real well so I knew I had to catch him,” Bauman said. “Hooray for the old guys. I’ve still got a couple years.”

Schumacher‘s final birdie, on the par-3 15th, ended its 20-foot run tumbled in on the last turn. He hit his tee shot into the water on the par-5 17th, but surrendered only one stroke, so when he parred the 18th, he had a three-stroke lead. Even if Walker had aced the par-3 18th, Schumacher would have won by a stroke. Walker parred.

“I had no idea until I signed the card that I was on top,” Schumacher said.

It’s tough to beat the view from there.

Around Medinah

On a windy day and with difficult pin placements, the final round scoring average of 77.13 for the 62 players making the cut was higher than the first round average of 76.77, when all 133 players were on the course. Only three players broke 70, with Glen View Club’s Chris Green scoring 3-under 68 and Schumacher and Flossmoor’s Simon Allen carding 69s. ... Matt Slowinski (70) was the only other player under the par of 71. ... The purse totaled $73,975. ... Defending champion Mike Small shot 3-over 74 and tied for sixth at 2-over 215. He and 10 others advance to the PNC. Along with Schumacher, Walker, Bauman, Chang and Billiter, Rich Dukelow, Kyle Bauer, Matt Slowinski, Brian Carroll and Simon Allen advanced to the national tourney.

Tim Cronin