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9:56PM

Of Pebble Beach, Jones, Nicklaus and the U.S. Amateur

By Art Spander

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Two words, one locale, a dateline that excites golfers, a landscape that thrills artists: Pebble Beach, where Bobby Jones was slammed a year before he won the Slam and where Jack Nicklaus won an Amateur, a Crosby and an Open.

Many of us know Pebble for winter storms and celebrity hijinks, but now it’s summer, when the weather is morning fog and afternoon sun, and they’re playing the 118th U.S. Amateur, so players are grinding and not goofing.

The Amateur had been played only in the East until the U.S. Golf Association chose to hold it at Pebble in 1929. Jones, the defending champ, was eliminated in the first round of match play.

Nicklaus won the Amateur at Pebble in 1961, then of course won the Crosby a couple of times and in 1972 the first Open held at Pebble. He also redesigned the par-3 fifth hole, which was moved to the edge of Carmel Bay.

Nicklaus, interestingly, planned to stay amateur and chase Jones’ records, but for a person to become as dominant as Jack did with his 18 pro majors, it was necessary for him to turn pro, which he did in 1962 — and then a few months later, he won the Open.

Surely, the kids who have success in this Amateur, which now has reached the quarterfinals, will all turn pro. Maybe they’ll be stars like Nicklaus or Tiger Woods, who remains the only man to win three consecutive U.S. Amateurs. Or maybe they’ll be near-misses, like Ricky Barnes, who won the 2002 Amateur but hasn’t done much since going pro.

But whatever transpires, the contestants will have special memories. “The 18th hole,” said quarterfinalist Austin Squires, “there’s all that water on the left and the little stretch of fairway.”

Years ago a San Francisco journalist nicknamed the iconic 18th “The Closer,” not because it ended careers but because so many match-play events ended there, the fans on one side of the fairway, the surf crashing spectacularly on the other.

Jack Neville, with the help of Douglas Grant, laid out Pebble along the rolling bluffs. “It was all there in plain sight,” Neville told me back in the 1970s. “Very little clearing was necessary. The big thing was to get as many holes possible along the bay.”

Do courses make the player, or does the player make the course? The answer is both. Nicklaus hitting that 1-iron off the stick at 17, Tiger making that birdie out of the rough at six. That’s how we think of Pebble.

The quarterfinalists think they are in some of links heaven, and that’s a figure of speech because even though the official name is Pebble Beach Golf Links, the course does not traverse linksland.

Isaiah Salinda, a quarterfinalist, is from Stanford and South San Francisco. The Pacific Ocean is no big thing, although to him Pebble always will be. Squires, from Union, Kentucky, shakes his head at views he never imagined existed until his first trip to Northern California — and Pebble.

“It’s my first time at Pebble,” said quarterfinalist Devon Bling, who plays for UCLA. “This is an unbelievable place. I prepped by playing the little Tiger Woods PGA Tour game. It looks a little different in person. This is amazing.”

Is it ever.

8:23PM

For Tiger, was it a last hurrah or a hint of the future?

By Art Spander

ST. LOUIS — Who knows where it goes from here? In a way, who cares? This might have been a last, wonderful hurrah for Tiger Woods, the PGA Championship in the humidity and enthusiasm of Middle America.

Or maybe it was a hint about a future that, at moments, could make us remember his past.

But it doesn’t matter. What does matter, for the game and for the golfer, is that for a week there were reminders of the way it used to be.

And a year ago, who dared imagine that would be possible? Not even Tiger.

Three weeks ago, he stirred emotions by working his way into the lead on the final day of the British Open before slipping to sixth, which was impressive, all things considered.

Then, here at Bellerive, green, lush and water-logged, so different from the links in Scotland, Woods played an even better major.

He shot 64 on Sunday, the final round of the 100th PGA Championship, and had the enormous crowd engaged and hopeful — and, of course, cheering loudly. The roar after a Tiger birdie rumbled across the fairways almost to the banks of the Mississippi.

The tournament in the end would belong to Brooks Koepka, who with a second major in a single calendar year, after the U.S. Open, and a third major overall, including consecutive Opens, right now may be the best golfer on the globe.

He has the long game and, perhaps more importantly, the short game and the poise. Koepka finished with a 4-under-par 66 for a 16-under total of 264, to win by two shots over, yes, Tiger Woods. Welcome to 2000.

Woods closed with a 6-under-par 64. He was holing putts and pumping his fist — and pumping up the fans. He dropped a long one at 18. He was a contender. He finished ahead of Adam Scott, Justin Thomas, British Open winner Francesco Molinari and Jordan Spieth, who in our tendency to exaggerate we’ve called the next Tiger Woods.

Ahead of everyone except Koepka.

But it was the former and current Tiger Woods who made this PGA thrilling. And surprising.

Woods was a question after the two back surgeries, the second to fuse a part of his spine. He needed to change his swing. He was 43, coming off months of inactivity and rehabilitation.

“At the beginning of the year, if you would say, yeah, I have a legitimate chance to win the last two major championships,” Woods conceded, “with what swing? I didn’t have a swing at the time. I had no speed. I didn’t have a short game. My putting was OK.

“But God, I hadn’t played in two years, so it’s been a hell of a process for sure.”

There’s a sporting axiom that greatness is forever. Age and injury may have an effect on performance, but a champion is always a champion. Tiger, we found out in the last few weeks, is still Tiger. In the hunt, he’s a factor.

What is different is this Tiger smiles and slaps hands with spectators, as he did walking up the ramp from the 18th green. We didn’t know if he would be back. He didn’t know. They say you don’t appreciate something until you don’t have it.

What Woods had during the PGA, especially the captivating last round, was a belief that this is where he belonged, high on the leader board, and striding purposely toward a goal that so many doubted ever would be attainable. It was fun. For him. For everyone.

“Oh, you could hear them,” Woods said of the fans. “They were loud, and they stayed around. It’s been incredible with the positiveness. They wanted to see some good golf, and we produced some good golf, I think, as a whole. The energy was incredible.”

It flowed from Brooks Koepka, from Adam Scott and most of all from Tiger Woods.

“I’m in unchartered territory,” said Tiger about his game, “because no one’s ever had a fused spine hitting it like I’m hitting it. I’m very pleased at what I’ve done so far. Going from where I’ve come to now in the last year, it’s been pretty cool.”

As they used to yell, you’re the man.

8:34AM

Newsday (N.Y.): Jordan Spieth remains upbeat despite making a big mistake

By Art Spander
Special to Newsday

ST. LOUIS — He called it a perfect storm, brought about by a less than perfect golf shot.

Jordan Spieth worked a miracle to win last year’s British Open, salvaging a bogey from a driving range. Saturday in the third round of the PGA Championship, there was nothing miraculous, only disastrous.

Read the full story here.

Copyright © 2018 Newsday. All rights reserved.

3:34PM

Koepka still trying to prove he belongs

By Art Spander

ST. LOUIS — Yes, Brooks Koepka has an attitude. He also has a game, and in sports — maybe in life — that’s a wicked combination. You’re determined to prove you belong. You have the skill to show that you do belong.

Koepka is a back-to-back U.S. Open champion, arguably one of the three or four best golfers in the world. But it isn’t so much what he’s done that keeps him pushing, but what was done to him.

“I can think of plenty of people along the way telling me I’d be nothing," said Koepka the other day, “working at McDonald’s, doing things like that. The whole time, you’re just trying to prove them wrong.”

Which he has done overwhelmingly.

After matching the lowest round ever at a PGA Championship, a bogey-free, 7-under-par 63 on Friday at Bellerive Country Club, Koepka is high on the leader board with half the tournament remaining.

“I’m just very much in the zone,” he said. “Very disciplined.”

And very driven, which every athlete needs to be.

“Growing up, in college,” said Koepka, “through right when you turn pro, there’s always people who are going to doubt you, say you can’t do it. Even know you’re just trying to prove everybody wrong. That’s the way I view it.”

The way he was viewed by some others was as a kid with a temper. At Florida State, he slammed more than one club to the turf. But all that intensity kept him from surrendering when things went wrong, as they often do in golf.

It’s a maddening game, one without teammates. The frustration builds. On Friday, while Koepka was shooting his 63, Bubba Watson, a two-time Masters winner, shot 78, 15 shots higher. That’s why golfers, no matter if they are touring pros or hackers, never are more confident than the next shot.

Koepka, 28, became a golfer truly by accident. A car crash when he was a boy kept him from playing contact sports. At 6 feet tall and 186 pounds, he looks like an athlete and would prefer to be hitting baseballs over fences than golf balls down fairways. The former major leaguer Dick Groat is a great uncle.

“If I could do it again, I’d play baseball — 100 percent no doubt,” he told Jaime Diaz of Golf Digest. Then again, he said that before winning his first U.S. Open at Erin Hills in June 2017.

Koepka failed in his first attempt to qualify for the PGA Tour. Then, instead of going the usual route, the secondary Dot.com Tour, triple-A minors you might say, he joined the European Tour. It was a grind, in unfamiliar locations with different foods, but it helped toughen Koepka.

An injured wrist kept Koepka out of the Masters, and all golf, this past spring. He said all he could do was sit on the bed and watch others play on TV.

“It was disappointing,” he said, “but when you take four months off, you really appreciate being able to play, and you’re eager to get back. I kind of fell back in love with the game. I just missed competing. It can get a little bit lonely when you’re just sitting on the couch.”

Since returning from Europe and joining the PGA Tour in 2012, Koepka has won only three times. Indeed two of the wins were in the U.S. Open, but you’d presume a player with his skill and grit would have several more.

“I’m not thinking about that when I’m out there,” Koepka insisted. ”I’m just trying to win this week. That’s the thing I’m worried about, winning this week and taking that and moving towards the playoffs.”

Halfway through the 100th PGA Championship, you like his chances. And no, to answer your question, he never did work at McDonald’s.

3:20PM

PGA: Fowler could rid himself of label as best golfer without a major

By Art Spander

ST. LOUIS — The label is a blessing and a curse: Best golfer never to have won a major. For so long it belonged to Phil Mickelson, who went years and 46 tournaments before escaping it at the 2004 Masters.

Now, for better or worse, it has been assigned to Rickie Fowler.

What it means, of course, is he’s a hell of a player. What it also means is that he doesn’t have a victory in any of the four tournaments that give a man a spot in history.

Second? Yes, Fowler has been runner-up in three of the four, including this year’s Masters. And a third in the other, the PGA.

But we’re talking firsts, like the 18 of Jack Nicklaus, the 14 of Tiger Woods. We’re talking about beating everyone in the field and not beating yourself up over the mistake that proved costly.

The cliché is that if a golfer is in contention enough times he’ll break through. After Thursday’s opening round of the 100th PGA Championship, Fowler is there once more. He shot a 5-under-par 65 at Bellerive Country Club.

But where will he be on Sunday afternoon?

It’s always the elephant in the room for Fowler, the unavoidable subject: Is this the week? Not that the journalists who confronted the 29-year-old Fowler had the temerity to ask that question point blank. They wondered if he knows how long Mickelson needed for his first major. Or if Rickie’s low round had him excited or worried.

“I’m definitely happy,” he explained, but then fell back on old golf logic. “You can’t win the tournament on Thursday, but you definitely can take yourself out of it and lose it, so we took care of what we needed to take care of today.”

He wasn’t playing with a partner. But like some of the other younger players, he affects the plural. Jordan Spieth is another who chooses to say “we” instead of “I.” Wasn’t it Mark Twain who said the use of “we” should be restricted to editors, monarchs and people with worms?

Fowler grew up in Murrieta, Calif., maybe an hour and half east of Los Angeles, and raced dirt bikes. He earned a golf scholarship to Oklahoma State, and on weekends at tournaments he often wears the school’s orange and black.

The plan Thursday was to dress in blue. But the death from cancer 24 hours earlier of the Australian tour pro Jarrod Lyle, a close friend of Fowler’s, was reason enough for Rickie to wear yellow, Australia’s national color, to celebrate Lyle’s life.

“It’s been fun thinking about him while we’re out there playing,” Fowler said, referring to Lyle, “because he probably would be the one to kind of kick you in the butt it you started feeling sad or bad. He would give you a hard time.”

The golf critics have given Fowler enough of a hard time. He was the No. 1 amateur in the world for 37 weeks during 2007-08, and when he turned pro the expectations were overwhelming — and possibly intimidating. He was PGA Tour Rookie of the Year in 2010, and yet there’s that lack of a major victory.

“You can’t force the issue,” said Fowler, who then reverted to the plural adding, “and it relates to some of our game plan and how we’re going about this week. I don’t have to play special to win.”

Fowler is a professed St. Louis Cardinals baseball fan, and that hasn’t hurt the way he’s been received by the fans, who were out in force on a steamy day when the temperature reached 90.

“I feel I have a great following with people having some ties to Oklahoma State. I feel there’s some kind of a Midwest connection, and definitely being a Cardinals fans and supporter, it’s great to be here and feel the love.”

What he hopes to feel is the trophy and the elation of a win in a major.

“It’s not necessarily something I worry about,” he said. “Keep getting in contention. We’ll just keep beating down that door.”