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

Thursday
Aug092018

Woodland leads PGA, Fowler one back, Zach two behind

Writing from Town and Country, Missouri

Thursday, August 9, 2018

One of these years, almost everyone with a whit of knowledge about golf and golfers believes, Rickie Fowler will win a major championship.

If you believe the Players Championship is a major, then it’s already mission accomplished.

Most people think it isn’t, never mind the deeper field than any of the four majors, so Fowler is still considered in the no-major wilderness. He’s been close, but close doesn’t get to kiss the trophy, Wanamaker or otherwise.

Maybe this week is the week in one of those years. Fowler, wearing a yellow shirt to honor late pal Jarrod Lyle, tore into Bellerive Country Club early and scored a 5-under-par 65 before anybody could stop him. Of the other 155 players in the field, only Gary Woodland, who grew up a state away in Topeka, Kan., could surpass that.

Woodland, who has never contended in a major championship, poured in enough birdies to score 6-under 64 to take the lead in the 100th PGA Championship in the steambath of the afternoon heat. Fowler is right behind, South African Brendan Stone and two-time major winner Zach Johnson follow at 4-under 66, and eleven players, including world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, Justin Rose, Stewart Cink and Ian Poulter, are tied for fifth at 3-under 67 entering Friday’s second round.

Before the humidity wick was turned up to infinity, a goodly number of the 35,000 or so on the premises had a great time chasing Fowler. He went through the back nine of this Robert Trent Jones-designed classic in 1-under, then birdied the first, third, seventh and eighth holes on the front side to race home in 4-under 31. The feature attraction was a 32-footer for birdie on the par-4 seventh, a dogleg left that, at 402 yards, is short by modern standards.

Bellerive, where Gary Player battled to win the 1965 U.S. Open, where Nick Price conquered to capture the 1992 PGA and where Camilo Villegas raced to victory in the 2008 BMW – the old Western Open – has always been considered a formidable test. As far as the young and old in the field hit it now, no course is a formidable test. Fowler had 157 yards left with no more in his hand than a 9-iron on the seventh because he laid up off the tee. Others dared to hammer their shots over the trees.

“I’ve always been a good mid iron and long iron player, so get me in the fairway and with the soft greens, I feel we can pick the golf course apart as long as we play smart and within ourselves,” Fowler said.

That’s true of much of the field, but Thursday, only he and Woodland truly got the job done. Dustin Johnson tied Fowler at 5-under after a string of three birdies through the 13th, but unaccountably missed the 14th green and bogeyed, as he did the 17th to finish 3-under.

While Fowler said the course isn’t a series of driver-wedge templates, that “some mid-irons” are used, he also said, “If you hit fairways and greens it’s not hard. It’s fairly generous off the tee, you can definitely play back on some areas to where it’s maybe a little bit wider.”

Fowler used that stratagem to hit 11 of 14 fairways and 16 greens in regulation.

Dull golf can be great golf in a major if the putts fall.

What Fowler has to do is keep it going. He was up and down like an elevator last week at Firestone, and has too often had at least one bad round in the four weeks a year where everybody cares.

“We took care of what we needed to take care of today, and we move on to Friday and go do what we need to go do tomorrow,” Fowler said.

Woodland left a 15-footer for birdie inches short at the 18th or he’d have tied the PGA Championship record with a 63. Regardless, 64 to lead when making 152 feet 5 inches of putts is more than a full day’s work. He bogeyed the first hole and birdied seven of his last 11. Clearly, adjustments to his putting are paying off.

“It’s nice to see results to back up the work you’ve done,” Woodland said. “I hit a lot of putts the first seven holes I thought I made and didn’t go in. It gets frustrating.”

Then they fell like hailstones on a stormy day, including a 44-footer on the par-4 11th, a 23-footer on the par-4 12th, and a 22-footer on the par-3 16th. All for birdies, and all to the delight of what he estimated were 75 to 100 backers from back home. All on greens that are patchy in parts and deliberately slowed up to survive the week.

“It’s so hot here in the summer, the greens are soft and slow, and that sets up for me,” Woodland said.

Zach Johnson was a handful of groups behind Woodland and only two strokes behind at day’s end, after a brilliant par save on the 17th. He nearly knocked the flagstick down with his approach at the 18th and signed for a saucy 66.

“I’m trying to eliminate the big, big number,” Johnson said of the save.

Stone, who closed the show at the Scottish Open with a 60 to win, had only one bogey in an otherwise-impeccable round, including birdies on two of his last three holes to nudged within a stroke of Fowler.

“It comes down to confidence, really,” Stone said. “I’d played well coming into the Scottish. My game feels fantastic. I hit it really well, the rhythm was spectacular, and I saw the putting lines all day.”

That was the reverse of last year at Quail Hollow, site of the 99th PGA, which Stone said “chewed me up and spit me up.”

Changing to a blade putter from a mallet, he said, improved his putting “leaps and bounds. I got one made by the guys at Ping the Monday of the Scottish Open and haven’t looked back since.”

Streelman opens 2-over

Kevin Streelman, the only Illinois-connected player in the field, arrived at Bellerive on Monday, but didn’t know for two days whether or not he would be able to tee it up when the bell rang.

He played nine holes on Tuesday to reacquaint himself with Bellerive, where he finished in a tie for 22nd in the 2008 BMW Championship, and another nine Wednesday, after which he got the word. Thomas Bjorn’s back injury hadn’t improved, and he withdrew. Streelman was in.

The result: A 2-over-par 72 thanks to a solid par save at the last.

“It’s a course where, if you have a great nine holes, you can get right back in it,” Streelman said.

Off the course, Streelman recently visited the White House with a number of other PGA Tour pros, dropping by during the week of the Quicken Loans Championship at nearby TPC Potomac. He ended up chatting up President Trump on golf topics. Calling himself a centrist, with strong views of issues on each side, Streelman said the visit was as much to honor the office as anything.

Around the PGA

Zach Johnson, seeking a PGA to go with his Masters and British Open titles, birdied the last from two feet after a spectacular approach for 2-under 33 to match his outward nine and jump into joint third. ... Tiger Woods had a ho-hum Bellerive debut, scoring even-par 70, with four birdies, two bogeys and a double-bogey. He opened with bogey-double and clawed his way back to even par with a 10-foot birdie putt on No. 8, his penultimate hole. Woods had only played practice rounds at Bellerive before Thursday. The 2001 WGC American Express tournament was cancelled after the September 11 attacks on Tuesday of tournament week, and Woods missed the 2008 BMW Championship because of his post-U.S. Open victory knee surgery. ... Phil Mickelson opened with a 3-over 73. ... The course record of 8-under 62 was set by Jim Furyk in the rain-delayed second round of the 2008 BMW.

Tim Cronin