The Course of the Unknown Golfers

Friday, June 16, 2017

The last time four guys were tied for the lead with 36 holes left in the U.S. Open, their names were Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Ray Floyd and Hale Irwin.

That was 1974, in what became known as “The Massacre at Winged Foot.”

There are four guys tied for the lead with 36 holes left in the U.S. Open at Erin Hills in Erin, Wis. Their names are Paul Casey, Tommy Fleetwood, Brian Harman and Brooks Koepka.

This may end up known as “The Unknown Open at Erin Hills.”

These are four good players who, like the next 13 players on the leader board, have never won one of the traditional four major championships.

Let’s meet the leaders:

Casey, the Brit who doesn’t play in Europe and thus no longer is on Ryder Cup teams, made an 8 on the 14th hole on Friday en route to dropping five strokes in four holes and still sits with the other three at 7-under 137. Call him The Snowman.

“Not every day you enjoy a round of golf with an 8 on the card, but I’m a pretty happy man,” Casey said. “It’s a good 8 in the end.”

Fleetwood is 33rd in the world, plays the European Tour, and his scruffy visage couldn’t be picked out of a police lineup, be it run by Interpol or the Washington County Sheriff.

“I’ve never done this before,” said Fleetwood, the veteran of seven previous majors, of contending. It’s his second made cut in a major, the other the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay.

Harman is well-known for winning the John Deere Classic in 2014, but also hijacked the Wells Fargo that seemed destined for Dustin Johnson earlier this spring. Did you know he’s a righty playing left-handed, like the absent Phil Mickelson?

“Any time you’re up there towards the top, you want to keep playing well, but you’re always wondering, ‘Am I going to play well?’ ” Harman said. “I was proud I hung in there.”

Koepka won the Phoenix Open in 2015, was second in the Texas Open this year, and is 22nd in the world. That may say more about the world than him, but the big hitter revealed something about Erin Hills that helps explain the low scores.

“Seven-iron, that’s the longest club I’ve hit into any par-4,” Koepka said. “When you’re doing that, you’ve got to be able to put it on the green.”

Three players are a stroke back at 6-under 138, including first round co-leader Rickie Fowler, who added a 1-over 73 and is joined by Jamie Lovemark and John “J.B.” Holmes. Players champion Si Woo Kim is tied for eighth at 5-under 139 with Hideki Matsuyama, the No. 4 player in the world. Martin Kaymer, owner of a pair of major titles including a U.S. Open, is lurking four back at 3-under 141 after a 72-69 start, sharing 19th place with Masters champion Sergio Garcia, among others.

There are 23 players within four strokes of the lead, 32 players within five strokes, and 42 players under par. Another dozen, including former champions Jordan Spieth and Jim Furyk, are at par 144. The cut, with 68 survivors, fell at 1-over 145.

Missing from the weekend: world No. 1 and defending champion Dustin Johnson, No. 2 Rory McIlroy, No. 3 Jason Day, and eight of the top 12 ranked players overall.

What did Dan Jenkins once write? “The tournament is at the airport.”

Johnson needed an albatross at the 676-yard 18th to make the cut after a bogey on the 17th. He hammered a 315-yard 3-wood that bounced over the green on his second shot after a drive of over 350 yards. But he’s out the door. Likewise McIlroy, who said those who couldn’t hit the 40-to-60-yard wide fairways didn’t belong, and then hit 16 of the 28 over two rounds. Likewise Day, tied for 144th, ahead of only eight players.

Bon voyage, laddies.

Those left will soldier on regardless on Saturday morning – presuming overnight downpours don’t cause a delay – in this Open of surprises and low scores. The gaggle tied for 55th at 1-over that made the weekend on the number is only eight strokes behind the Four Whosmen. Eight strokes can be made up in a U.S. Open. Lou Graham was 11 back with 36 to play at Medinah in 1975 and beat John Mahaffey in a playoff. (If the old system of including everyone within 10 strokes of the leader was in effect, 91 players would still be playing, including Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson and Charl Schwartzel.)

So if you’re among the 145ers, such as Webb Simpson, who has already won one of these, or Zach Johnson, with a Masters and British Open on his resume, or Matt Kuchar, who copped the 1997 U.S. Amateur at Cog Hill – a major for the “Nicklaus has 20” credo to which we subscribe – keep hope alive, make some birdies, and see what happens.

And birdies can be made at Erin Hills. There were 483 of them on Friday, running the two-day total to 931. Players are hitting nearly three-quarters of the fairways off the tee and 65 percent of the greens – which only began to get testy on Friday afternoon – in regulation. Only 13 holes are playing over par, with a two-day scoring average of 73.305 (73.385 in round 1, 73.165 in round 2).

Of the contenders, nobody has made more birdies than Casey and Lovemark (12 each), and nobody has hit more greens in regulation than Koepka (30).

Kaymer isn’t leading any category, but he’s hanging around and knows what to do on the weekend of a major, even though he finished with a bogey. As does Garcia, who did it in April and has the green jacket to prove it. Neither sounded as if they would go for broke in the third round.

“You can’t really be aggressive on Friday or Saturday,” Kaymer said. “You have to wait for the back nine on Sunday if you’re only three or four shots behind.”

“To be 3-under-par with a chance on the weekend, I’m proud of that,” Garcia said. “Keep the momentum and see if we can have a good weekend and have a chance on Sunday.”

Or, the way this is going, on Monday.

Around the Open

The 1-over-par cut tied the Open low, set at Medinah in 1990. ... Amateur Cameron Champ, tied for eighth at 5-under 139, has the best score in relation for par as an amateur since Chick Evans opened with 139 at Midlothian in 1916. ... Wisconsin natives Steve Stricker and Jordan Niebrugge each scored 73-72–145 and made the cut on the number. ... If Casey wins even with the 8 on Friday, he’ll be the first to do so with a triple-bogey on his card since Tiger Woods, who made a 7 on the par-4 third hole at Pebble Beach in the third round in 1990. ... A 94-year-old man from Wauwatosa, Wis., died of natural causes at the Open on Friday after taking ill in the grandstand near the sixth green, USGA officials said. Paramedics were on the scene within three minutes, performed CPR and transferred the man to an ambulance, where efforts to revive him failed. Temperatures Friday were in the low 80s. ... Trevor Thompson, pilot of the blimp that crashed near the course on Thursday, remains in serious condition, officials said. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating, as it does all aircraft accidents.

Tim Cronin

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>
« Szeryk scores Women's Western Am title | Main | Fowler bursts to lead with 7-under 65 »