Sunday
Jun182017

Koepka's 67 cops U.S. Open

Writing from Erin, Wisconsin

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Outside of members of his family, Brooks Koepka wasn’t anyone’s first pick to win the 117th United States Open at the start of the week at Erin Hills.

He’s the toast of the town – and destinations beyond – now.

Koepka won the big prize on Sunday with a 5-under-par 67 for 16-under 272 that pulled him away from a field of close contenders and pretenders who, like him, had never won a professional major championship.

The 27-year-old Florida native excelled when overnight leader Brian Harman could manage only par 72, when Hideki Matsuyama’s best-of-the-day 6-under 66 to match Harman at 12-under 276 was too little, too late, and when the rest of those in the hunt – here’s looking at you, Rickie Fowler – barely got a sniff.

Whereas many U.S. Opens are won by the winner fading less than the rest, Koepka went out and won it. He’d grabbed the lead momentarily with a 20-foot birdie putt on the devilish par-3 ninth hole, a hint of what was to come. Bogey on the 10th brought him back to 13-under with Harman, who would bogey the 12th and 13th holes, sliding to 11-under, while Koepka made this run:

• a 6-foot birdie putt on the par-5 14th after hitting his 300-yard approach into a bunker, moving him to 14-under and two strokes ahead;

• a 10-foot birdie putt sliding ever so slightly from right to left on the par-4 15th, for a three-stroke lead and all but lock it up – recognized by a baby fist pump;

• and a 15-foot birdie putt on the par-3 16th, to go up by four.

To Koepka, it all started with a par save on the par-3 13th.

“Massive,” Koepka said. “I needed to make that if I was going to win this golf tournament. That’s the reason I felt I had so much confidence coming down, especially with the par-5 coming up, knowing you needed to birdie that.”

While Koepka was winning it, in part by hitting 17 greens in the final round and a mind-boggling 62 of 72 for the week, Harman, hitting only eight of Erin Hills’ 14 broad fairways, was throwing his way his best chance at a major so far.

Maybe it was the wind, a good 15 mph most of the afternoon, or maybe it was him. Visiting belt-high fescue at one point, he bogeyed three holes on the back nine after not bogeying any of them in the first three rounds. With three holes to go, a birdie-birdie-eagle finish would have brought him a tie with Koepka, but Harman could manage only the one birdie, at the par-3 16th via a brilliant approach to a foot. When his tee shot on the par-5 18th ended up in a bunker, even his shot at an albatross for a miracle tie flew away.

“I just wish I was able to put a little more pressure on the course,” Harman said. “ I just didn’t drive it as well today as I wanted to,” Harman said. “That would be something I’d work on going forward.

“I don’t feel as though I lost a golf tournament. I think Brooks went out and won the tournament.”

True. And Matsuyama, aside from being put on the clock with John “J.B.” Holmes, was in the same mental vicinity.

“If I learned anything, you’ve got to put four good rounds together,” Matsuyama said though an interpreter. “I played two good rounds, but it wasn’t enough. Hopefully in the fiture I can play in either the last or next to last group to give myself a better chance.”

Matsuyama birdied the 18th hole via a 2 1/2-foot putt to get to 12-under 276 when Koepka was 13-under with four holes left and Harman had just fallen to 12-under on the 12th. That was a good number to be sitting on in the clubhouse until Koepka’s birdie barrage.

All this had been building for Koepka, or so it seemed. He made his way to the PGA Tour via Europe, hardly conventional for a Florida State grad. He’d won at Phoenix two years ago. He’d scored four top-10 finishes in majors since 2014, including a tie for fourth in the 2014 U.S. Open. He went 3-1 in last year’s Ryder Cup.

He had length – a 379-yard 3-wood off the 18th tee drew gasps from the gallery of 35,000 – and smarts and everything needed to win. He just hadn’t often won, underachieving by his standards after a handful of European Challenge Tour wins, a European Tour title, a win in Japan, and the triumph in Phoenix. Now he has a major and a share of the U.S. Open under-par scoring record. Rory McIlroy, who watched the final two rounds of the weekend from afar, went 16-under at Congressional in 2011.

“I felt like I put myself in contention so many times,” Koepka said. “I don’t want to say I got unlucky. I felt like I just never fully came together. I put myself in some good chances over the last few years and never really quite came through.

“I just felt like I should be winning more. I don’t know why. Not a big fan of losing; I don’t think anyone out here is. And I just couldn’t stand the fact that I’d only won once.”

A phone call Saturday night from Dustin Johnson, who missed the cut in defending his title, might have been the last piece of the puzzle.

“It was a long phone call for us,” Koepka said. “It was like two minutes.”

The message: “Just stay patient.”

“I’ll win if I stay patient and just keep doing what I’m doing.”

Koepka also alluded to a better mental attitude compared to early in the year.

“I couldn’t get my mind to free up, but I’m past that now,” Koepka said.

He certainly is. So focused was he this week he forgot a certain holiday.

Said Koepka, “I didn’t exactly get my dad a card, so this works.”

Around the Open

Koepka earned $2.16 million, a U.S. Open record, for the victory. Harman and Matsuyama each collected $1,050,012. Tommy Fleetwood, tied for the lead for seconds early on the front nine, finished at 11-under 277 and made $563,642. ... Gallery favorite Steve Stricker’s 3-under 69 for 5-under 283 tied him for 16th, making the 50-year-old the low Wisconsin native, and should sell tickets to his Champions Tour tournament this week at University Ridge in Madison. ... Scottie Scheffler was the low amateur, tying for 27th at 1-under 287. ... The course averaged 73.926 strokes on Sunday and 73.204 for the week. ... The United States Golf Association gave everyone on hand an Arnold Palmer commemorative pin upon entering, plus switched out the usual 18th hole flag for one with a silhouette of Palmer throwing his visor after winning the 1960 U.S. Open. ... Fox Sports managed to improve its coverage overall, but had several faux pau down the stretch, including an incorrect graphic when Rickie Fowler was on the 15th hole, deciding not to show an interview of Matsuyama because it was through a translator, and losing contact with Curtis Strange before he interviewed Koepka. Nobody told Strange to get his shadow out of Koepka’s face.

Tim Cronin

Sunday
Jun182017

Harman leads, but it's a U.S. Wide Open

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Brian Harman has sat at 12-under-par before.

Not in a U.S. Open.

Tommy Fleetwood has chased titles before.

Not in a U.S. Open.

Rickie Fowler has made splash after splash in golf.

Not in a U.S. Open.

Sunday brings the final round of the 117th United States Open.

One of the 68 players remaining will win it – or have it handed to him – either in regulation or in a Monday playoff.

Open Sunday is different than Masters Sunday or British Open Sunday or PGA Sunday or any other Sunday. Emotions bubble up and need to be controlled. The little things – lining up a one-footer, say – suddenly take on importance. No stroke is guaranteed. Every stroke matters with the oldest open championship in American golf on offer.

This Open Sunday is really different. The birdie barrage on Erin Hills in Erin, Wis., continued on Saturday, with Justin Thomas pouring in putt after putt en route to a 9-under-par 63, the latter number tying the low for any of the four majors, and fifth in a U.S. Open, and the former setting a new standard. Thomas made nine birdies and eagled the 18th hole, and with two bogeys on his care, still snapped the single-round under-par mark of 8-under set by Johnny Miller en route to victory at par-71 Oakmont in 1973.

Thomas played more than two hours before the final twosome of Harman and Paul Casey, and gave them a reason to watch the scoreboard. He finished tied with Fleetwood, the European Tour standout, and Brooks Koepka for second at 11-under 205, a stroke behind Harman, whose 5-under 67 should have been better, but for a bold play at the last that resulted in a mere par.

“Twelve under, I’d have about a 10-shot lead in most opens,” Harman said.

He’s not kidding. This Open’s phenomenally low scores have come about thanks to fairways wider than a CinemaScope screen and rain-soaked greens that are fast but holding. Pros drool at such conditions.

Harman, the first of the record 42 players under par through 54 holes, thinks the gravy train ends Sunday morning.

“The wind is going to come out of the north, it’s going to blow, and the scores could be a good deal higher,” Harman predicted. “I’ve got a good plan for this course. I played it in a couple of different wind conditions.”

Thomas, decked out in pink pants, played it incandescently well, making birdies on the first two holes and darting up the leader board like a squirrel seeking the top branch in a tree. But he was more tickled by the par created by a 6-iron at the par-4 third.

“That ball is way above my feet, I had 204 in and off the left wind,” Thomas said. “I just pured the 6-iron right at it. Something about that shot just calmed me, and made me very comfortable for the day.”

It climaxed with a 310-yard 3-wood – honestly – that finished four feet from the cup at the last. Eagle and 63.

“I wouldn’t have been able to do that without the rain last night,” Thomas said.

Perhaps, but, much like Miller’s 63 after a rainy Saturday night at Oakmont, nobody else shot 63 on Saturday. The next lowest score was Patrick Reed’s 65, which jumped him into a tie for seventh.

There are 13 players from Harman at 204 to the quartet at 209 that includes Bill Haas and Brandt Snedeker. Notably, Rickie Fowler sits at 10-under 206 after a 68, while Si Woo Kim is a stroke behind Fowler after his own 68. On a day when the field average was almost precisely par – 72.015 – one needed to be in the 60s to make himself known.

Tradition says the winner comes from those within five strokes entering the final round, but tradition also says the winner is at 3-over and bleeding. This feel-good Open feels different. It wouldn’t be a complete surprise to see the first 62 in a major, especially if someone like Sergio Garcia (tied for 17th at 4-under 212) gets rolling. But guys like Jordan Spieth (tied for 59th at 4-over 220 after a 76) are just too far back.

“I had 15 looks at birdie today and all of them were actual makable putts, and I only made one of them,” Spieth said. “It just looked like I was putting at half a cup. Sometimes it looks like I’m putting to two cups.”

Whoever wins on Sunday, the 35,000 on hand are expected to raise a cup.

Around the Open

For all the low numbers, no player has scored three rounds in the 60s this week. ... Steve Stricker shot 69 and is tied for 30th at 2-under 214. ... Stephan Jaeger, winner of last week’s Rust-Oleum Championship at Ivanhoe, is at 2-over 218 after scoring 74 and outplaying fellow competitor Spieth by two strokes. ... Haotong Li finished with a thud, a quadruple-bogey 9 on the 18th, and is last at 10-over 226.

Tim Cronin

Saturday
Jun172017

Szeryk scores Women's Western Am title

Writing from River Forest, Illinois

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Maddie Szeryk had one critical edge over Dylan Kim in Saturday’s stellar championship match of the 117th Women’s Western Amateur at River Forest Country Club.

When she absolutely needed to, Szeryk could summon a solid approach or sink a big putt.

That was evident several times in the course of the double-round match, and enabled her to close out Kim by a 3 and 1 margin. While Kim missed the green of the 526-yard par 5 with her third shot, Szeryk was able to drill an approach to about -- feet and calmly two-putt for the victory, Kim missing her 15-foot par-saver.

Szeryk, a 21-year-old dual U.S.-Canadian citizen who registered from London, Ont., but calls Allen, Tex. home and will be a senior at Texas A&M in the fall, took control of the match on the second nine in the morning. Birdies on four of five holes beginning at the par-4 10th moved her three-up on Kim, who has left Baylor and expects to know next month where she’ll go to school in the fall.

Szeryk got as much as 4-up on two occasions before Kim rallied, including pulling to within two holes with wins on the 13th and 15th holes in the afternoon, but that margin proved too difficult to overcome, and Szeryk lifted the W.A. Alexander Cup.

“It’s good to win a match-play tournament,” Szeryk said. “It’s pretty awesome to win this.”

It was pretty awesome how she did it, scoring 5-under 67 – with the usual match-play concessions – in the morning and going around the 17 holes in the afternoon in 1-under-par. Kim scored the equivalent of 3-under 69 in the morning and 2-under in the afternoon, but Szeryk’s timing in that mid-morning stretch, with birdies on the par-4 10th to go 1-up, the par-3 11th to match Kim, the par-4 12th to go 2-up and the par-4 14th to go 3 up, build a margin that Kim couldn’t overcome. In the end, that caught up with her.

“It’s tough when you’re 2-down with two holes to go,” Kim said. “But it was a good week. I’m happy with the way I played, disappointed with the finish.

“It was kind of the way you want a championship match to be played.”

Both Szeryk and Kim had scored 1-under 143 in qualifying, one off the lead, and each marched through match play, Szeryk dramatically in the semifinal, when she was extended to the 20th hole by Francesca Olivarez-Ilas of the Phillipines. 

Two years ago, Szeryk advanced to the quarterfinals of the British Ladies Amateur. Saturday, while world No. 1 amateur Leona Maguire was winning this year’s edition of that, Szeryk stuck closer to home and won a nationally-recognized title of her own, the biggest of her career.

Tim Cronin

Friday
Jun162017

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

Thursday
Jun152017

Fowler bursts to lead with 7-under 65

Writing from Erin, Wisconsin

Thursday, June 15, 2017 

Is there really a new era at the United States Golf Association?

One designed to help players avoid penalties rather then playing gotcha?

One featuring dozens of competitors under par and roars, rather than groans, from galleries?

One day at the 117th United States Open doesn’t say that definitively, but sympathy, rather than sternness, was in evidence on Thursday at Erin Hills.

And that doesn’t even take into account the expression of sympathy from the USGA to the pilot of a blimp that crashed about a mile feast of the golf course in the morning. The pilot, unidentified, was burned when his advertising blimp went head first into a grass field. He was airlifted to a hospital via medical helicopter.

The Open’s leader is very much identified. It’s Rickie Fowler, who is either searching for his first major championship or chasing his second, depending on one’s view of the Players Championship.

Fowler went around Erin Hills – stretched to an Open-record 7,845 yards on a windy day – in 7-under-par 65, only the third 7-under opening score in an Open. Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf shot 7-under 63s on Thursday at Baltusrol in 1980.

Half the world is right behind him and under par. Well, an Open-record 44 players were under par – and another 16 at par 72 – by the conclusion of play, with Paul Casey and Xander Schauffele scoring 6-under 66 to trail Fowler by a stroke with the best rounds of the afternoon. That’s a record 60 players at par or better.

A gaggle at 5-under 67 includes Brian Harman, Brooks Koepka, and Tommy Fleetwood, the best player you’ve never heard of. (The European Tour standout is 33rd in the world rankings.) Patrick Reed and Kevin Na are among a quartet at 4-under 68.

By U.S. Open standards, the scoreboard’s red numbers resemble – speaking of Harman – the John Deere Classic or the old Buick Open, even with the course longer than the line of parched patrons waiting for water on an 85-degree day.

What gives? Simple. Soft greens.

The 1.84 inches of rain that fell from Monday night through Wednesday took the course’s firm greens and made them nearly as plush as “Fescue,” the mascot cow on sale in the merchandise tent. While the fescue fairways continued to run, the soaking allowed the field to throw darts at the bentgrass greens, and stick them.

So, at least for one day, the Open wasn’t a torture chamber for all, but a pleasure palace for most. Throw out erstwhile Masters winner Danny Willett, whose untidy 81 raised eyebrows, and a trio of lessers who also were in the 80s, and the field found Erin Hills and its 40-plus yard wide fairways far more docile than the usual Open course, which features handcuffs on the first tee and other instruments of mayhem along the way.

Fowler had no truck with the potential problems, tooling around without a bogey.

“You don’t get many rounds at the U.S. Open that are stress-free,” Fowler said. “Simple day when you look back on it.”

As are all rounds that open with three birdies in five holes. That, and birdieing all four par-5s, the only one of the leaders to do so. And hitting copious numbers of fairways (12 of 14) and greens (15). Do all that, and a 65 is possible.

“I still missed some putts, but it’s just nice to go out and actually execute the game plan and not have to think about ‘what if that one went in’ or anything like that,” Fowler said.

Elsewhere, defending champion and top-ranked Dustin Johnson scored 3-over 75 thanks to visits with heavy fescue, Masters champion Sergio Garcia opened with a smart 2-under 70, and local fan favorite Steve Stricker settled for par 72 after making birdies on the first two holes.

The lack of ferocity in the tenor of the greens is matched by the thin resumes on the top of the leader board. Garcia, Ernie Els and Jim Furyk are among those tied for 18th. Nobody above them has won one of the four professional majors.

Fowler takes the “best player not to have won a major” as a compliment, which is wise. He also knows one round, even at 7-under, does not guarantee a trophy in his hands.

“It is always cool to be part of some sort of history in golf,” Fowler said. “But I’d rather be remembered for something that’s done on Sunday.”

Around the Open

Scottie Scheffler is the low amateur at 3-under 69 in a field of 14 ams. ... Canadian Adam Hadwin birdied six straight holes to tie an Open record and nearly birdied a seventh, running a 90-foot-plus putt within an inch of the hole to the right. He missed the par comebacker and settled for bogey, but added another birdie and finished at 4-under 68, in a tie for seventh. ... While some hospitality areas sold out, tickets were still being sold at the gate on Thursday. Attendance was supposed to be limited to 35,000.

Tim Cronin

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