S.F. Examiner: Brooks Koepka claims first major title with US Open win

By Art Spander
San Francisco Examiner

ERIN, WIS. — It wasn’t the Olympic Club or Pebble Beach, sites of history. It was Erin Hills, derisively nicknamed “Errant Hills.” But if the course wasn’t memorable, a place scraped from Wisconsin pastureland, the game Brooks Koepka played there definitely was.

A 27-year-old who literally became a golfer by accident — a car crash when he was a boy kept him from playing contact sports — Koepka on Sunday won America’s golfing championship, the U.S. Open, in a record-tying performance.

Read the full story here.

©2017 The San Francisco Examiner


‘Errant’ Hills gets what it needed, a 63 by Justin Thomas

By Art Spander

ERIN, Wis. — They were calling it “Errant” Hills, saying it was the most forgettable course in U.S. Open history. But that changed on an historic Saturday, changed when a kid who’s been touted as one of the next greats went out and shot the lowest score in relation to par in the 117 years that the championship of American golf has been held.

If you didn’t know the name Justin Thomas, didn’t know he was destined to what was done on a warm, humid afternoon in the pastureland of Wisconsin, shoot a 9-under-par 63, well, you do now.

That’s been a magic score in majors, 63, since Johnny Miller, the kid from San Francisco, shot it the final round at Oakmont near Pittsburgh to win the 1973 Open. Since then, there have been numerous 63s, including one by Phil Mickelson last year in the British Open.

But none was at a par-72 course, like Erin Hills. Until Saturday.

“It was an awesome day,” said Thomas. ”I’m not sure when it’s going to sink in or when I’m going to realize what I did. I know one thing. If it happened (Sunday) and the result is what I want it to be, then I’d probably have a different feeling.”

Then he’d be a U.S. Open champion like his longtime pal and rival, Jordan Spieth.

But until Sunday it’s just a score to place in the record books, a score that verifies what sort of talent a 24-year-old who stands 5-foot-10 and weighs only 145 pounds can offer.

All that 63 was worth on the leaderboard was as part of a cumulative 11-under-par 73-69-63—205, tying Thomas for second with Brooks Koepka and Tommy Fleetwood, after Fleetwood double-bogied 18. Brian Harman holds the lead by a shot at 12-under 204.

Thomas had an eagle three on the 637-yard 18th, reaching the green in two and then holing the putt. “I was just trying to take advantage of the opportunities I had,” said Thomas.

More accurately, the opportunities he created.

The grandson and son of tour pros, Thomas, who grew up in Louisville, was a star before his teens. He once won two junior tournaments in a single day. At 16, he played in the Greensboro Tour event and shot 65.

“I was completely unconscious,” Thomas told Mark Whicker in 2015. “But I remembered how it motivated me. I was sitting in the players’ dining room and looking at all the food they get. They were making us omelets, and I was grabbing candy and ice cream. It was the coolest experience ever.”

That statement is up for amendment.

“I don’t know what I’m going to feel tonight,” he said. “I know I’m not going to sleep in. I’m going to be nervous, but it will be a good nervous.”

On Saturday, Thomas was saying how proud he was of his home town and the state of Kentucky, but he played his college golf at Alabama, helping the Crimson Tide win an NCAA title.

He has four PGA Tour wins, two in Malaysia in the CIMB and two in Hawaii. His friends, including Spieth, chide him, saying he’s never won on the American mainland.

“I mean, it would be special,” he said of this possibility. “It would be special, because it’s the U.S. Open, not because it’s on the mainland. I mean that’s kind of funny to me.”

The way Thomas plays golf is not at all funny, it’s exciting. At the Sony Open in January, he became the seventh player overall and the youngest to shoot a sub-60 round, a 59. Yes, he won.

Whether he wins this Open won’t be determined for another 18 holes, but obviously he’s in a great position after a great round. Then again, so are many others, including last year’s PGA champ, Patrick Reed, a star of the U.S. Ryder Cup team last year, and at 10-under the first-round leader, Rickie Fowler.

“As long as it’s a good tournament,” said Thomas, “I don’t think the USGA cares what the score is. They want a good tournament and an action-packed leaderboard. I mean, to be selfish I hope it isn’t, and I have a day like (Saturday).

“But you don’t know what’s going to happen. That’s the thing.”

Someone could even go out and shoot 63 like Justin Thomas.


U.S. Opens at Chambers, Erin Hills? Give us Pebble, please

By Art Spander

ERIN, Wis. — This 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills, smack in the middle of somewhere southwest of Milwaukee, has the strong scent of another on a course scraped out of America’s heartland, that one in 1970 at Hazeltine, near Minneapolis.

The responses that year varied from dislike to pure hatred, the latter expressed by the late Dave Hill, a testy pro who would just as soon drop a critic with punch as drop a 40-foot putt. “All it lacks,” he said of Hazeltine, “is 80 acres of corn and a few cows to be a good farm.” And he finished second.

Jack Nicklaus, more diplomatic than Hill, said what bothered him about Hazeltine is Ben Hogan never played there, meaning if the USGA, which runs the Open, is so obsessed with tradition, why are they bringing it to a site with no link to Hogan, Sam Snead or other former greats?

Now, after a remodeling, two U.S. Opens, a PGA Championship and the 2016 Ryder Cup, Hazeltine has some history and a presence. Mark Twain said that politicians, old buildings and prostitutes become respectable with age. To that list, add golf courses.

So maybe there is hope for Erin Hills. Or maybe not. The USGA deserves a small cheer, at least, for expanding the Open, once limited to very old line, private, restricted — and admittedly great — courses such as Merion, The Country Club and Winged Foot.

But bringing in venues such as Pebble Beach, Pinehurst and Bethpage Black, all expensive but available to the public, is different than showing up at a little-known site among barns and silos in America's Dairyland.

To a golfer, names like Pebble, Oakmont, Medinah and Shinnecock Hills, at the end of Long Island, have a certain resonance. As throughout sports do names such as Churchill Downs, the Rose Bowl and Yankee Stadium. Staging the U.S. Open at Erin Hills is akin to holding Wimbledon on a battered tennis court in northeast England, even if the opponents are Federer and Nadal.

This is the second installment of the USGA’s “Guess what we’ve got cooking?” idea. Two years ago, the Open was played at Chambers Bay, another unproven course on Puget Sound near Tacoma. It fell victim to the weather, a lack of rain in frequently rainy Washington State.

Gary Player, who has his own agenda — he designs courses — said Chambers Bay was awful. At least there were some beautiful views, unlike Erin Hills. And at the end, after the grumbling, the one-two finishers were, in order, Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson, two of the best.

That always has been one way to judge the quality of any course, and whether it should be used either for the U.S. Open or the PGA Championship: the leaderboard. The other two majors, the Masters, always at Augusta National, and the British Open, are outside this category.

If you get Spieth, who won two majors in ’15, and Johnson, who took last year’s U.S. Open at venerable Oakmont, then maybe the course will gain acceptance over the years. If not, at least it may have produced one magnificent tournament.

This week at Erin Hills, the leaderboard through two rounds was decent, especially with no Tiger Woods — who may be out forever — or Phil Mickelson in the field.

Rickie Fowler, who has the commercials, might at last get the major. Players such as Brooks Koepka and Paul Casey are winners lingering just outside the big names. They wouldn’t be a surprise with a victory.

What Erin Hills could have used to escape anonymity was a win by Rory McIlroy, Jason Day or Dustin Johnson, each of whom has at one time of late — Johnson at the moment — been No. 1 in the world rankings. “Never heard of the place, but Rory won there” sort of attention.

But Rory and Day missed the cut, and Dustin was right on the line.

Maybe Erin Hills' reputation will be that of the course where Day made two triple bogies on the front nine in the first round and a 23-year-old Open rookie from San Diego, Xander Schauffele, didn’t make a bogey until the second round.

Whatever, it’s still smack in the middle of nowhere, a course as hard to find as it is to play.


For Mickelson, a vacant spot as a golfer but not as a man

By Art Spander

ERIN, Wis. — Phil Mickelson couldn’t make it to the first round of the U.S. Open. But he made it as a father. As a family man. As someone who decided what’s important in life.

There may be a vacant spot in his resume as a golfer, but not as a man.

Phil is an easy person to admire. And, now and then, to dislike. He’s public in his displays, the opposite of the individual with whom he was so long compared, Tiger Woods.

Tiger is a CIA operative, furtive, laying low. Mickelson seems at times to be waving at us, saying, “Look at what I’m doing.”

He rarely goes unnoticed. In 1999, he had caddy Bones MacKay, the same one still in his employ, carry a beeper in the golf bag during the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, just in case Phil’s wife, Amy, gave birth to the couple’s first child. Mickelson said he would leave immediately if contacted.

Some thought it was grandstanding. But moments after Payne Stewart made the putt on the 18th green to beat Phil and win the tournament, he held Mickelson’s face between his hands and told him, “You’re going to be a father, and there's nothing greater in the world. You and Amy are going to make wonderful parents."

A day later, Amanda Stewart was born, and Phil, having sped back across the country — he then was living in Arizona — was at Amy's bedside.

Now it is 18 years later, and Thursday another U.S. Open began. But for the first time since 1993, Mickelson was not in the field. He had withdrawn hours earlier to stay in southern California, where the family now resides, to hear Amy give the commencement speech at Pine Ridge School in Carlsbad.

Life is all about timing. And decisions. Phil had this rather grandiose plan. He would attend the school ceremonies, then, with thunderstorms in the long-range forecast, immediately fly to a small airport near Erin Hills, the Open course, some 25 miles northwest of Milwaukee, and maybe make a delayed tee time.

He was a day late, unfortunately. On Wednesday, lightning, thunder and pounding rain eliminated practice rounds at Erin Hills. And more of the same is forecast for Friday. But Thursday was clear and hot, 84 degrees. There were no delays. There was only Mickelson’s withdrawal, opening a spot that would be filled by an alternate, Roberto Diaz of Mexico.

This brought to mind the lyrics of an old Sinatra song, Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out To Dry: “When I want rain I get sunny weather ... ” For once at a tournament, Mickelson could have used some rain, more specifically an electrical storm. But it wasn’t to be.

The subplot is that the U.S. Open is the only one of the four majors never won by Mickelson, who Friday turns 47 and is in the twilight of a career that already gained him election to the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Six times he has been second, including 2006 at Winged Foot, when he blew the lead with a double bogey on the 72nd hole, and ’99, when Stewart outdueled him.

We remember the failures even more than the successes. Sam Snead never won a U.S. Open, Tom Watson and Arnold Palmer failed to win a PGA. John McEnroe and Pete Sampras didn’t win a French Open. Until last fall, the overriding issue in American sport was that the Cubs hadn’t won a World Series for more than a century.

The Cubs broke the spell. Mickelson almost definitely will not. He’ll be too old to win the 2018 Open, at Shinnecock Hills, where in 2004 he was runner-up to Retief Goosen.

If this year’s Open had been at Torrey Pines in San Diego, as was the one in 2008, Phil would've been just a half-hour from Amanda’s school and been able to play. But he wasn’t. And he couldn’t. And who knows how he would have done, anyway?

Some may think of this Thursday in June for what Phil Mickelson could have done. Others will cherish what he did: join his daughter and family for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Good going, Phil.


S.F. Examiner: Sweet redemption: Warriors become first Bay Area team to win title at home since 1974

By Art Spander
San Francisco Examiner

OAKLAND — Now inevitability was about to become reality. Fewer  than four minutes remained, and the crowd, at first hesitant, then triumphant, as the Warriors would in a short, glorious time Monday night, let loose, turning the building once more from the Oracle into the “Roaracle,” a place where winners reside.

“Warr-rriors, Warr-rriors, Warr-rriors,” they chanted loudly enough to be heard from Salinas to Sonoma — a gleeful, repetitive salute to the NBA’s once and newest champions, the team that was just short of playoff perfection but long on brilliance and success.

Read the full story here.

©2017 The San Francisco Examiner