Soggy Aronimink pummeled by golf's best

Rose leads McIlroy, Schauffele by one entering final round of BMW

Writing from Newtown Square, Pennsylvania

Saturday, September 8, 2018

A soggy golf course, and Aronimink Golf Club fits the description, will giveth and taketh away.

It giveth birdies in abundance, and even the occasional eagle. Low scores have been routine, and if a traditional manual scoreboard was used at the 18th hole, the crew would have run out of red numbers by now.

It taketh away the concept of strategic placing of golf shots on a course with wide fairways designed to optimize the best spot from which to attack a pin. If Aronimink was dry – as it will be by, say, next May – you would need to be on the left side of the fairway for the best angle to avoid the many bunkers for a good chance to get close to a cup on the right side of the hole.

But with a wet summer, plus rain directly in advance of the BMW Championship, and 2.4 more inches from Friday’s dinner hour through breakfast Saturday morning, strategy is moot. High-level golf has been replaced by Olympic-class lawn darts. Players can hit the left, middle or right of the fairway, got their hand on the ball on Saturday thanks to the PGA Tour’s employment of the lift, clear and place option, and took dead aim, intervening bunkering be damned.

The result: A sea of under-par rounds unlike any seen in the 115-year history of the Western Open / BMW Championship, played under the latter title since the German automaker assumed the sponsorship and it became the circuit’s playoff semifinal in 2007. This was the 453rd stroke-play round in championship history, and the field of 69 of golf’s elite pummeled the 93-year-old par-70 layout, averaging 67.159 strokes, beating the old record average of 67.333. Which, by the way, was set on Friday under the standard Rules of Golf.

It’s like this: Whiz kid Bryson DeChambeau tooled around in 6-under 64 on Saturday and was disappointed because he couldn’t figure out the greens. He’s also tied for 26th at 9-under 201 with a round to go.

“Tomorrow I’ll be ready,” DeChambeau said of his Sunday prospects.

And like this: Tommy Fleetwood birdied seven of 10 holes and scored a second straight 8-under-par 62 – the fourth of the week – to match the two-round tournament total of 124 set by Jason Day in the first two rounds at Conway Farms three years ago. He’s tied for third at 15-under 195 and eager for more.

“I don’t think it’ll do any harm if I shoot another 62,” Fleetwood said.

And like this: Rory McIlroy shot 7-under 63 with a double-bogey on the par-3 eighth thanks to blading a chip shot over the green. (He eagled the next hole, a par-5, and finished his round with a 41-foot birdie bomb.)

“It’s a weird day,” McIlroy said. “They put a lot of the tees up and it was very wet. If you didn’t shoot 65 you were losing ground.”

And like this: Webb Simpson bogeyed his last two holes and still shot 5-under 65.

And like this: Tiger Woods, who drew a gallery about the size of South Philly, scored a bogey-free 4-under 66 and lost ground.

“I’ve got to take a run at it, whether it’s tomorrow or Monday,” said Woods, worried about a bad weather forecast. “You drive it halfway decent in the fairway and you’re throwing darts at the flag. There’s really no fear.”

The fearless leader to whom Woods surrendered scoring acreage is Justin Rose, who has taken to Philadelphia golf like nobody since Johnny McDermott, the youthful two-time U.S. Open champ of a century ago. Rose won the 2011 AT&T National – Woods’ mid-summer tournament – at Aronimink, and captured the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club, about eight miles of winding roads away. (Rose also won the 2011 BMW at Cog Hill, the last one played at the Jemsek family’s playground.)

Saturday, his 6-under 64 moved him to 17-under 193, a stroke ahead of McIlroy and Xander Schauffele, whose 3-under 67 finished with a bogey at the last, but keeps him in the running to advance to the Tour championship in a fortnight.

Fleetwood and Rickie Fowler (5-under 65) are tied for fourth at 15-under 195, with Keegan Bradley at 14-under 196 via a 4-under 66. In all, 13 players are within five strokes of Rose, including Woods, who started the day’s adventure three strokes back and now is five behind.

Rose went out in 6-under 29, then parred every hole on the tougher back nine to settle for 64.

“I took advantage every time I had a wedge in my hand,” Rose said. “On the back, the conditions got tougher, but on 15, 16 and 18 I had nice chances at birdie.”

He also made a devilishly good par save on the par-3 17th. His tee shot leaked to the right and sat in the rough on the side of a steep hill, but he used his 52-degree wedge like a level and flipped the ball to within 41 inches of the cup, sinking that to preserve a 3.

“A fun shot but not really where I wanted to be,” Rose said. “There was a lot of improvising. Flicking it over my left shoulder was how the shot felt.”

Schauffele was 4-under for the round until his stumble on the 18th, but is in striking position with McIlroy, whose round of an eagle and seven birdies was built on hitting 12 fairways, 15 greens and taking only 26 putts. He wanted more.

“I was kind of hitting it here and there,” Schauffele said. “The fairways are big enough to hit it well and find some spots here. The biggest thing I took from the beginning of this week was trying to make the least amount of mistakes.

“I’m tired right now.”

The best work of the day was that of Aronimink superintendent John Gosselin and his tireless crew, who fought the odds and had the course playable for a noon start. But their work is not yet done, for the Philadelphia office of the National Weather Service fancies another 1.7 inches of rain over 48 hours beginning at 8 p.m. Saturday night. No lightning is predicted until Monday afternoon, so play would continue unless the course turns into a puddle.

To get the final round in on Sunday, a two-tee start will be employed again starting at 7 a.m. Eastern time if the weather allows. Tour meteorologist Joe Halvorson forecasts light rain in the morning and heavier rain after noon, hence the daybreak start.

Golf Channel will televise live beginning at 7 a.m. Central time, while NBC will show the action on tape as scheduled at 1 p.m., or go live if there’s been a delay. Nobody wants to think about options for Monday and beyond, or the prospect that Saturday’s round was the final round.

“I tried not to, but it was in the back of my mind,” Rose said of that option. “It got dark toward the end, as if weather was moving in.”

Around Aronimink

Galleries turned out in force despite the postponed start, with – no surprise – a throng around 42-year-old Woods, who still moves the needle after all his pain and turmoil in the last decade. He rewarded his faithful with birdies on the first two holes to climb back into contention and kept them in thrall the rest of the day. About 30,000 fans have turned out each day, and there was a decent gallery on Wednesday as well. Saturday, many parked in nearby front yards and walked to the course before the shuttle busses began running at noon. ... Two of Saturday’s three holes playing over par were par-3s, the eighth and 17th. ... The temperature dropped to 66 degrees with the leaders in the middle of the back nine, 29 degrees lower than Thursday’s oppressively humid reading of 95. ... The original plan was to play twosomes off the first tee beginning with dew-sweeper Phil Mickelson at 8:26 a.m., but the monsoon meant cleanup work for John Gosslein’s untiring grounds crew, so the switch was made to threesomes off both tees, which meant that even with the last group starting at 1:50 p.m., play would conclude about 7 p.m. Eastern, as was the plan originally. ... Whispers have it Mickelson was ticked by the change in tee times, because he’d ordered an extra TV for his hotel room and was planning to watch college football all afternoon and into the night. He was spied sneaking a glance at a game on his phone before teeing off.

Tim Cronin

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