Sunday
Aug122018

Crafty Koepka captures classic PGA

Writing from Town and Country, Mo.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Brooks Koepka can shed the Rodney Dangerfield no-respect tag forever now.

He’s a force in golf, and with three major championships in his pocket, has an inside track to the World Golf Hall of Fame.

And Tiger Woods confirmed he can play championship golf again.

Those are the twin lead stories to come out of the 100th PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club, and if it sounds like that’s slighting Koepka, who has collected those three majors, including the last two U.S. Opens, in just six starts, consider what he says about what others think:

“I don’t care about what anybody else says. You’re going to have fans and you’re going to have people who hate you,” Koepka said after grabbing the tournament by the throat on the last four holes, and thus grabbing the Wanamaker Trophy as well.

He has more of the former than the latter now, whether he knows it or not. Thousands hung around for the trophy ceremony, which is usually conducted to the taillights of the gallery.

Koepka’s 4-under-par 66 for a PGA-record 16-under 264 was good for a two-stroke victory over Woods, whose 6-under 64 electrified the gallery of approximately 50,000 and coaxed millions to television screens around the world.

However, the numbers don’t really tell the story. Koepka and Woods both battled their way around a Bellerive course that stiffened somewhat as the day went on. Koepka snapped a tie with fellow competitor Adam Scott with 10- and six-foot birdie putts on the 15th and 16th holes after Scott had birdied five of seven holes to climb into a tie at 14-under.

Woods then battled his way within a stroke, and would have tied Koepka on the back nine but for a would-be birdie putt that was a quarter-turn short of falling in on the par-4 11th and a bogey on the par-4 14th. (Not hitting a fairway on the front nine and still scoring 3-under 32 was a push, but Woods rued his erratic tee game during and after the round.)

His chance to make history, returning to glory from the back injury that threatened his ability to walk, much less play golf, was finally thwarted by a hazard-inducted par on the par-5 17th, but he birdied the last, draining a 20-footer, to break a tie with Scott and take solo second. Scott finished at 13-under 267 with his 3-under 67.

Koepka, 28, beat two childhood favorites in Woods and Scott, which added to the flavor of the day.

“When I watched Adam win at the Players (in 2004), I was so mad when he hit it into the water, probably as mad as he was,” Koepka said. “And Tiger, he’s why all of us all play. I don’t think I ever dreamed I’d be playing against them.”

He was, and he outplayed them. All week, Koepka had generally kept the ball in play – hit the fairway, hit the green, hit the hole – while driving it over the horizon. That’s a splendid combination. Woods noticed as much in a practice round.

“It’s tough to catch Brooksie when he’s hitting it 340 (yards) down the middle,” Woods said. “At Shinnecock, he was just bombing it, and he’s doing it here. And he’s making putts. Doing that, he’s tough to beat.”

When he missed, he missed long, making recovering for par possible. Koepka double-bogeyed the sixth hole in the first round and had only four bogeys, back to back in each of the last two rounds, the rest of the way.

The bogeys on the fourth and fifth holes brought defending champion Justin Thomas briefly into a tie for the lead, but Koepka never relinquished a share. Thomas slid back with bogeys on the 14th and 16th holes. Scott failed to convert chances after climbing to 14-under on the 13th, notably at the par-5 17th when he slid a six-foot downhill putt past the hole.

Koepka kept steady of mind even when missing birdie chances at No. 12, 13 and 14. His 12-foot birdie on the 15th pushed him to 15-under, and the follow-up 6-footer on No. 16 for 16-under and a two-stroke lead effectively cued the engraver.

“I had the momentum coming off 13,” Scott said. “When I missed that putt on No. 15, and he was putting after me (and made birdie) ... you know, there are huge moments in tournaments.”

Scott saw it as the turning point.

“I had a chip (for birdie) on 16 and a putt on 17 and didn’t make it,” Scott said. “That was my last hurrah. It would have made it interesting.”

Woods’ day-long adventure made it very interesting. They sold everything in the Bellerive merchandise tent but earplugs, and those were necessary, so loud were the galleries for Woods to do something.

He did plenty. Eight birdies. No fairways hit until the 10th hole. Out in 32. Visions of an 18th major championship (15th as a professional) dancing in the humid air. That turned out to be  a mirage, but for one brief shining moment, Bellerive was Camelot.

Woods’ run brought to mind the charge Jack Nicklaus made to win the 1986 Masters, only his time, the fairy tale didn’t have the dramatic ending. Four strokes off the pace at the start, Woods went out in 3-under 32 and was only a stroke back after piling a birdie on the 13th hole on top of one at the 12th.

“The golf course was soft, it was gettable, and I had to go get it,” Woods said. “I tried.”

Woods eventually hit five of seven fairways on the back nine but only matched his 3-under 32 from the front. That millimeters-short putt on the 11th and the lip-out when trying to save par on the 14th were the difference between runner-up and a playoff with Koepka.

As it was, Woods all but brought the house down.

“These fans were all so positive, I can’t thank them enough,” Woods said.

Koepka – remember him? – concurred.

“You could hear roars on 10 and 11 9 (for Woods), and they would trickle down across the course as they changed the leader boards, every three seconds,” Koepka said. “The loudest road came when I was over my putt on No. 8. Did he birdie 9?”

Oh yes, did he.

“When he did it was incredible.”

Then Koepka made some noise of his own, sinking that birdie putt, as he had the one on No. 7, as he would the one on No. 9, to go out in 2-under 33. Eventually, the throng that came to cheer Woods saluted him as well.

“I’ve never seen this many people at a golf tournament,” Koepka said. “I don’t even know what to say, there were so many.”

Years from now, many who were here will even remember Brooks Koepka was the winner.

Full house again Sunday

One of the more impressive aspects of the week was the gallery. It was obvious the thousands who poured into Bellerive each day were thrilled to be at a major championship from the way they acted. In four days on the course and watching television coverage – a writer tends to gravitate to the screen since the production can be at many places at once – only a couple of “baba booey” yells were heard. This, with perhaps 45,000 to 55,000 on hand each day. It was more like a Masters gallery, with everyone at Augusta National on their best behavior lest they get thrown out and banned for life.

Associated Press golf writer Doug Ferguson said he’d never seen so many people at a major championship – though Doug wasn’t yet on the beat when the Masters sold an unlimited number of practice round tickets. The crowds here compared to the big final-round crowds for the Western Open at Cog Hill when Greg Norman or Woods was leading or stalking the leader and over 50,000 would turn out on Sunday. And the 45,000-square foot PGA merchandise tent was mobbed, sometimes with admission allowed only when someone left.

In our experience, only the final round of the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah Country Club, when vendors were told to be ready for 65,000 fans, appeared to be measurably larger than any of the four tournament days here.

Around the PGA

Koepka won $1.98 million, Woods $1.188 million from the purse of $11 million. Stewart Cink and Jon Rahm, who briefly threatened, tied for fourth at 11-under 269. ... Koepka is the fifth player to win the U.S. Open in the same year, joining Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Woods. ... With the schedule change, Koepka will defend his PGA title next May at Bethpage Black before defending the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in June. ... Illinois graduate and European Tour standout Thomas Pieters made a run, and was 6-under for the day when he double-bogeyed the par-5 17th hole, hitting two shots into the creek that meanders down the right side. That killed his chance at an upset and landed him in a tie for sixth at 10-under 270. He still shot 66. ... Ben Kern, the lone club pro to make the cut of the 20 in the field, scored even-par 70 on Sunday for 3-under 277 and finished tied for 43rd. ... Rickie Fowler teed it up on Sunday, but nothing happened. He scored 1-over 71 for 8-under 272 and tied for 12th. ... The field averaged 69.338 strokes on Sunday, and 70.125, barely over par, for the week. ... The U.S. Ryder Cup standings didn’t change among the top eight, who are now locked in, but Woods gave every reason to captain Jim Furyk to select him next month.

Tim Cronin

Saturday
Aug112018

Underrated Koepka goes for U.S. Open-PGA double

Writing from Town and Country, Missouri

Saturday, August 21, 2018

When Brooks Koepka won last year’s U.S. Open at Erin Hills, he received acclaim, but some reserved endorsing his accomplishment. Their thought was that the course was so wide, and Koepka had such length off the tee, his wasn’t a traditional U.S. Open victory.

Then Koepka went and won this year’s U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, a course that demands both strength and subtlety. That turned most of the nay-sayers into endorsers. Not only had Koepka become the first to win back-to-back National Opens, he’d collected the second at one of America’s signature courses.

If Koepka wins the 100th PGA Championship on Sunday – and he leads the scrap at soggy Bellerive Country Club by two entering the final round thanks to his third-round 4-under 66 for 12-under 198 – he’ll have won three of the last seven major championships, and with a wrist injury limiting his play the first half of this year.

There would be no argument against the quality of that accomplishment.

Koepka is chasing the first U.S. Open-PGA double since Tiger Woods’ doing so in 2000 (along with the British Open, and finally the 2001 Masters for the grand slam). He leads Adam Scott by two strokes after Scott’s 5-under 65 for 10-under 200, and is three ahead of Jon Rahm (66), Rickie Fowler (69) and Gary Woodland, who led the first two rounds but slipped to a 71 on Saturday. There are 11 players, including defending champion Justin Thomas, within four strokes, and 14 within five – with British Open champion Francesco Molinari lurking that far in arrears.

“Stay in the moment, that’s the big thing,” Koepka said of how to go about his business. “There’s a lot of star power (on top) and it should be. It’s a major championship. That’s what’s going to make this event very exciting to watch tomorrow.”

Koepka only hit nine fairways in the third round, but made the most of it. That’s why he was hitting driver on the first hole, for instance, when Woodland and Kevin Kisner, with whom he played on Saturday afternoon, were laying up.

“I don’t see anything but driver,” Koepka said. “With Zoysia fairways the ball’s not really going to roll out anyways, and especially with a wet golf course.”

Which, despite a sunny day and a high of 88 degrees, it still is. The wind was negligible until late in the round, which means the moisture in the ground is staying there. That plays into the hands of the big hitters, and Koepka qualifies.

“All you have to do is put it in the fairway and you’re fine.” Koepka said.

And scramble like a demon, which he has. Oh, and putt. Koepka’s only needed 81 putts so far, only 50 in the last 36 holes. Of the main contenders, Scott’s rolled it 86 times, Rahm 91, Fowler 89, Woodland 83, Woods 86 and Cink 84. If Koepka keeps that up, the Wanamaker trophy and the $1.98 million that goes with it will be his.

However, he’s not ready to lift the 34-pound prize yet, and not because he’s taking easy at the gym, which he visits every available morning, including Sunday morning.

“With so many big names,you would expect two or three of them to really make a run, get off to a good start and challenge me,” Koepka said. “They’re names I’ve grown up watching that everybody else loves to watch play.”

Koepka accomplished his 66 with a penalty stroke for slapping a tee shot against a tree on the 15th hole, which set up a second straight bogey.

“I don’t know how it got behind that tree with so many people,” Koepka said. “It was impressive it ended up there. But you just get on with it.”

He built his lead on an outward 5-under 30, which ballooned to five strokes when Woodland triple-bogeyed the par-4 10th, and a birdie on the par-5 17th kept him ahead of the faster-closing Scott.

“I’ve driven it well,” Scott said. “That’s tricked down into my irons, and I’ve putted well. All around, everything’s looking real solid. But I need a great day tomorrow. It’s a stacked leader board.”

That it is, and while Scott doesn’t look out of place, his Masters win and No. 1 ranking is a distant memory. He’s No. 76 this week, in the PGA for that reason alone.

“When it’s bunched like this, it comes down to the guy who makes a couple of putts when he’s in position,” Scott said.

Rahm, the fiery Spaniard, hasn’t had any blowups this week, which he credits to a new mental attitude. His bogey-free 66 didn’t hurt either.

“I’ve been doing a lot of mental work,” Rahm said. “I think I’m more balanced, hence the bogey-free rounds. I decided to stop complaining – act more like an adult would. Thursday (when he shot 68), it was a really big effort. Yesterday (67), it was a massive effort on a couple of holes. It hasn’t been easy.”

The payoff could be enormous. The same would be true for Fowler. His Players Championship title is great, but doesn’t have that major patina in the eyes of most people. But winning it as he did, racing from behind, may pay off double on Sunday. In his mind, he’s been there.

“It’s how confident I’ll feel tomorrow compared to four or five years ago,” Fowler said of his outlook for Sunday. “But I’ve got to play better than I did today, that’s for sure.”

And by the by, Woods climbed back into the ring on Saturday. First he finished off a second-round 66, then posted a like score that featured a 4-under 31 on the front side and nine straight pars coming in, including a three-putt par on the 550-yard 17th after landing on the green in two. However, that was good enough to lift him from a tie for 19th to a tie for sixth at 8-under 202, and thus into Sunday’s fourth from last twosome.

“I gave myself a chance,” said Woods, who was followed by an enormous percentage of the 45,000-plus who jammed Bellerive and produced Augustaesque roars when Woods was galloping around the front nine. “I played 29 holes, dropped three shots and two of those were three-putts. I just wish I could have got myself a couple shots closer to the lead. But there aren’t too many guys in front of me.

“I’m tired. The 29 holes, it’s not physical, it’s mental.”

The final four pairings: Stewart Cink (201), whose 66 moved him into contention for a second career major, and Jason Day (202), who won the PGA three years ago at Whistling Straits, at 1:25 p.m.; Woodland and Woods at 1:35 p.m.; Fowler and Rahm, each pursuing their first major, at 1:45 p.m.; and finally Koepka and Scott at 1:55 p.m.

Fowler, the most notable player yet to score one of the four traditional majors, is being hampered, sort of, by a strained oblique muscle, but his swing doesn’t seem impacted. He said it didn’t get any worse in the third round, but will it allow him to snap the tie with Rahm and Woodland, climb past Scott and take on Koepka? His Players win came from off the pace when nobody was looking.

Sunday, people will be looking.

Around the PGA

Jordan Spieth, seeking to capture the career grand slam with a victory, had closed within lurking distance of the leaders mid-round with four birdies on his last five holes of the front nine. Then he sailed his tee shot on the par-4 12th hole to the right and watched it bounce off a cart path into a woody refuge. He had 205 yards to the hole and decided to go for it, using a 5-iron. His shot hit a tree, then another, and caromed out of bounds. That led to a triple-bogey 7 and knocked him back in the pack, from a tie for ninth to a tie for 27th by day’s end. “It was just a perfect storm,” Spieth said. “I should have hit 6- or 7-iron and gone for the front of the green. The gap (between trees) was wider higher up.” ... Woods was among the players who lauded the galleries, calling them “unbelievable. Hopefully, we can come back soon.” Koepka said he’d never seen so many people on a golf course for a major as he has this week. ... The 80-player field after the cut scored 69.500 on the par-70 layout, lowing the week’s average to 70.286. A similar day on Sunday and this would be the first PGA Championship where the field beat the course. ... Matt Wallace aced the 232-yard 16th hole with a 7-iron, and threw the ball to the gallery after he picked it out of the cup and kissed it.


Tim Cronin

Saturday
Aug112018

Woodland carries PGA lead into third round

Writing from Town and Country, Missouri

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Anyone in the fairway at Bellerive Country Club when the second round of the 100th PGA Championship resumed had a great chance at a birdie.

Anyone in the rough risked settling for bogey, so thick and juicy was the high grass.

That’s why nobody left on the course Friday when thunderstorms brought proceedings to a halt at 3:33 p.m. made a run at leader Gary Woodland, who was back at his hotel, pleased to be at 10-under 130 when the storm hit, dropping .45 inches of rain on an already mushy course.

Rickie Fowler came closest, playing his last eight holes in 1 under to come in with a 3-under 67 for 8-under 132 and a tie for third entering the afternoon’s third round. He made two birdies and one bogey along the way, with a birdie on the par-5 17th getting him to 8-under on a windless morning where the surface conditions were vexing.

“The golf ball being wet makes it harder to control with the rain from yesterday and the dew,” Fowler said.

Between Woodland and Fowler is Kevin Kisner, whose 64 for 131 was registered Friday morning. Double U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka scored a PGA record-tying 63 on Friday to move into third at 8-under 132, which Fowler matched.

Four players are tied at 7-under 133: world No. 1 Dustin Johnson (second-round 66), Charl Schwartzel (63), Illinois graduate Thomas Pieters (66) and Shane Lowry, who finished off his 64 in the morning.

Tony Finau likely boosted his standing in the eyes of U.S. Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk with the 4-under 66 he completed in the morning. Finau, who parred only one of his first 11 holes, settled down and parred three of his last seven holes to go with three more birdies and a bogey. Furyk played with Finau, who scored 74 on Thursday. The second-round rebound put Finau at even-par 140, which made the cut on the number, a record low for a PGA by one stroke. Eighty players advanced to the final 36 holes.

Bryson DeChambeau missed a four-foot putt on his last hole and missed the cut by a stroke. He came into the week ninth in the Ryder Cup standings, the first non-automatic spot. Furyk may be less interested in DeChambeau as a result.

Also missing by one: Sergio Garcia, Matt Kuchar, Davis Love III and Padraig Harrington. Wheaton native Kevin Streelman missed by two despite a second round par 70, while Masters champion Patrick Reed and John Daly missed by three. Phil Mickelson added a 71 to his opening 73, his 4-over 144 four strokes more than what was necessary, while Bubba Watson’s 8-over 78 was punctuated by a pair of double-bogeys and sent him packing. HaoTong Li withdrew with a wrist injury after the 11th hole. He played his last three holes in 4-over.

Tim Cronin

Friday
Aug102018

Spieth seethes at soft conditions

Writing from Town and Country, Missouri

Friday, April 10, 2018

Remember Jordan Spieth?

The guy who’s won the Masters, the U.S. Open and the British Open – or Open Championship, if you wear a monacle – and needs only the PGA Championship for a career grand slam?

Yep, that guy.

Where is he this week?

Seven strokes back of 36-hole leader Gary Woodland, that’s where.

On Friday, Spieth added a bogey-free 66 to Thursday’s 1-over 71 to stand at 3-under 137 before the thunderstorms doused Bellerive Country Club with more of what Spieth didn’t want to see in mid-afternoon.

Like most top players, he wants conditions harder, not easier. So far this week, Bellerive has gotten softer and softer. The summer-long heat wave – humid even by St. Louis standards – started it, putting the greens on the edge of dying. Downpours on Tuesday soaked the fairways and rough. Now came Friday’s monsoon, and while Bellerive isn’t ready to host a regatta, nor does it remind anyone of Carnoustie, where the British was played on baked-out fairways that resemble the tarmac at Lambert Field.

Any more rain, and the place will be so soft, Twinkies will be signing up as the PGA’s title sponsor.

This, Spieth didn’t want. His 66 was accomplished in the morning, when it went from warm to steamy, but hours before the rain came. No matter, as he was ornery about the entire situation, calling himself “a little frustrated at this place in general.

“It’s tough to come to a venue with bentgrass greens and this kind of weather,” Spieth said. “This course would be phenomenal, probably is, if it’s not playing so soft. And it’s not the rain that came on Tuesday. It was like that on Monday.”

Credit global warming for that. It changes the game plan because fairways where the ball would run through – the dogleg is alive and well here – now stop the ball that might otherwise scoot into the rough. More fairways hit equal more greens hit, which means both lower scores and more players in the chase.

Players not as good as Spieth.

“You can fire in and get away with more,” Spieth said. “You don’t have to be as precise. That’s frustrating in a major championship. That’s frustrating to be because I feel (precision is) an advantage I have. Personally I would prefer more difficult and firmer, faster conditions on the greens.

“I still really like the golf course. You just can’t possibly have firm, fast bentgrass greens in this climate.”

St. Louis is in that tweener zone between bentgrass and bermuda. There are more exotic options that have been created in recent years, but an elite club will tend to pick bentgrass even in extreme climates north of Florida. Augusta National Golf Club, for instance, though that famous course is closed from mid-May to early October. It’s too humid for bentgrass in Augusta then, too hot overall, and that’s when the home of the Masters remakes itself.

Bellerive doesn’t have that luxury. Maybe it should chase the next available PGA. It will be played in May.

Tim Cronin

Friday
Aug102018

Woodland leads rain-delayed PGA Championship

Writing from Town and Country, Missouri

Friday, April 10, 2018

 

It was great until the thunderstorm played through.

Birdies and eagles were plentiful at Bellerive Country Club. There was a festival atmosphere in the swollen gallery of over 40,000 fans.

Then, five minutes after the first of many insistent rumbles of thunder, and with a cloud blacker than night looming to the north, PGA of America officials blew the hooter.

It was 3:33 p.m. That, as it turned out, was all the golf for the day. The second round in the 100th PGA Championship will continue on Saturday at 7 a.m., followed by Round 3.

But, while it lasted, what golf! Seven-under-par 63s, tying the PGA Championship record, from Brooks Koepka and Charl Schwartzel. A 64 from two-time U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka. Critically, a 66 on top of Thursday’s 64 by Gary Woodland, good for 10-under 130 – a PGA Championship 36-hole record – and the lead at the unscheduled break.

Woodland’s a stroke ahead of Kisner’s 131, two ahead of Koepka’s 132, and three ahead of the 133s of Schwarzel, world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, and erstwhile Illinois standout Thomas Pieters, the latter duo posting matching 66s. Rickie Fowler is also at 7-under, 2-under through 10 holes of his round.

All that happened on a golf course that remained soft from Tuesday’s downpours with greens that were deliberately cut to run slower than the typical major championship pace to keep them alive.

In other words, conditions ripe for scoring.

“The golf course is trying to dry up a bit,” Woodland said hours before the latest deluge. “Get in the fairway, the greens are still soft enough you can still attack. The key is get the ball in the fairway and attack from there.”

Woodland was splendid all morning, hitting 15 greens, but best hole was the par-5 17th, which ran every bit of 597 yards on Friday. He hammered a 321-yard drive over a bunker to cut the dogleg right, hit what he called “a little cut 3-wood” from 265 yards to about five feet, and ho-hummed the putt home for an eagle 3.

“It was nice to make that eagle because Kis was on a little run there,” Woodland said.

Who wasn’t?

Kisner started on the back nine, went out in 6-under 29, and appeared to be aiming for a score in the 50s. Parring the first six holes on the course stopped those dreams, and a birdie-par-bogey finish gave him 35 for a mere 6-under 64.

Koepka, in the group ahead of Kisner, opened with three straight birdies and played the back nine in 31, and made three more birdies on the front for 32 and a PGA-tying 63, one off Jim Furyk’s 10-year-old course record.

Fowler opened with a bogey but played 3-under golf after than and was at 7-under at the horn. He could make hay on a softened course Saturday morning.

Brandon Stone is alone in eighth place at 6-under 134, with a host of players at 5-under, some of them still to finish. Nobody in the 78-player afternoon wave has finished. When play resumes, the caboose groups in the field will have 14 holes to play.

Around the PGA

Wheaton native Kevin Streelman was 3-under for the round and 1-under for the tournament when play was suspended. ... Tony Finau had a roller-coaster round that resembled the old Mad Mouse ride. Five straight birdies to open his round. A triple-bogey on the sixth hole. Two more birdies and then a bogey to tour Bellerive’s front nine in 4-under 32. A par – a par? – on the 10th hole followed by another birdie, when he drove the green, chipped close from the back fringe, and knocked in a shortie for his sixth three in 11 holes. Then the horn blew with him 4-under for the day and back to even for the PGA. It had to impress fellow competitor and Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk. ... When play was suspended, the cut was expected to fall at even-par 140, which would be a PGA Championship record, but the continued softening of the course might bring it down a stroke.

Tim Cronin