The Panda gives Giants what they were lacking

By Art Spander

SAN FRANCISCO — Now and then, you see one of those black-and-white panda hats. Not in abundance, like the glory days for the Panda, Pablo Sandoval, and the Giants. But often enough to serve as a reminder of the way it was. And for the guys in the clubhouse, the way it is once more.

Yes, after that 2014 season, the last World Series season in San Francisco — and there was Sandoval grabbing a foul popup near third for the final out — the Panda wanted more loving or more money or something, and not only joined the Red Sox but departed the Bay Area by tossing a few insults at the Giants organization.

But Boston was no place for Sandoval. And when the Red Sox waived him, his weight too large, his batting average too low — and were responsible for a large hunk of the large contract ($90 million) he had signed — the Giants figured it made sense to see what the man can do.

The idea turned out to be brilliant. Not only because with Evan Longoria out for several weeks with a broken hand, Sandoval is starting at third — after also playing first and, glorioski, even second base.

Not only because Sandoval is hitting .281 with six homers.

Not only because Sandoval was intentionally walked in the sixth when the Giants broke loose for five runs in their 6-5 win over Miami on Wednesday.

But maybe most importantly because Sandoval provides the spirit and camaraderie that at times was lacking as the Giants in 2017 collapsed to a 98-loss season.

“Sometimes you can’t put a value on this,” said Brandon Belt. “He’s accepted his role with humility. He keeps everything loose. He keeps you in the right frame of mind.”

Belt, feeling strong again after that emergency appendectomy a couple weeks ago, had three hits including a double in that big sixth, which — and you’ve heard this before about games at AT&T Park, where this one was played — might have been a home run at many other parks.

“We won,” said Belt, cutting to the chase. That they did, winning another series at home (they haven’t dropped one here since early April) and once more creeping to within a game of a .500 record.

They won because with Brandon Crawford away on paternity leave (he returns Thursday), and after consecutive night games Monday and Tuesday following a long trip, both Andrew McCutchen and Buster Posey getting a day off, Belt, Nick Hundley, Gorkys Hernandez and, from out of the past, Hunter Pence had notable offensive games.

They won because starter Derek Holland allowed only three runs in six innings and, this is repetitive, pitching wins. Look, the Giants didn’t score until the sixth — the Marlins’ starter, Jose Urena, was sharp — but San Francisco still only trailed 1-0.

“What a job Holland did,” said Giants manager Bruce Bochy.

Bochy also was excited by Gorkys Hernandez’s extended and successful at bat in the sixth, which lasted 13 pitches and concluded with a single to center that scored San Francisco’s fourth and fifth runs.

These Giants may not be leading the standings, but they do know to work a count. Belt set a record by standing in for 21 pitches earlier this season. Now, Hernandez goes 13. That requires a good eye and plenty of patience.

“Gorkys’ at bat was huge for us,” said Belt. “We needed those runs.”

The Giants’ leadoff batter in the first, Alen Hanson, a switch hitter, took a big lefthanded swipe at a Urena pitch, fell and injured his left knee severely enough that he had to be replaced by Kelby Tomlinson.

Another injury, after broken hands on pitches for Longoria and Madison Bumgarner and then reliever Hunter Strickland stupidly punching a wall, busting his. Cursed? Not really, said Bochy. Hanson will be sore but available. Those things happen.

So, for the Giants, do situations like Monday’s game, when ahead 4-0 in the second, they wound up losing 5-4.

Easy then to get depressed, to carry the gloom to the next game — or even for weeks. But not with the Panda around. “You need guys like that,” said Belt.

And once again, the Giants have him.



Koepka does what Jack and Tiger couldn't do: win consecutive Opens

By Art Spander

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — He became a golfer by accident. Literally, a car crash when he was 10 had such a severe injury to his sinus cavity, the doctors wouldn’t let him play any contact sports. He put down the bats and picked up the clubs.

Fate and fable. Talent and courage. On Sunday, at hard and historic Shinnecock Hills, Brooks Koepka did what Jack Nicklaus never did, what Tiger Woods never did — win back-to-back U.S. Opens.

When that accomplishment last was recorded, 29 years ago, 1988-89, Curtis Strange, alluding to the great man who preceded him, quipped, “Move over, Ben,” meaning Ben Hogan, who did it in 1950-51.

And Sunday there was Strange, working for Fox-TV, asking Koepka how he managed to come back and win after starting with a 5-over-par 75 on Friday. How? Strange knew all too well.

You just keep hitting shot after shot — and, more importantly, making putt after putt.

Which, breaking from a four-way tie for first after 54 holes that included Dustin Johnson, Tony Finau and Daniel Berger, is exactly what Koepka did, a couple of those putts for pars on 12 and 13 — “Incredible saves,” said Koepka — and finishing with a one-stroke victory.

Koepka shot a 2-under 68 at Shinnecock, which USGA officials intentionally made more playable, heavily watering the greens after Saturday’s debacle. That gave Koepka a 72-hole score of 281, which if 1-over was still better than anyone else.

Englishman Tommy Fleetwood tied a U.S. Open record with a 63, making eight birdies including four in a row at 12, 13, 14 and 15 — but he couldn’t get one on any of the last three holes, which would have given him a 62 and a tie for first.

Dustin Johnson, who played almost as poorly — well, scored as poorly — over the last two days as he played well during the first two, going in order, 69-67-77-70-283, came in third. Masters champ Patrick Reed was another shot back at 284 with a 68 that had a magical start of four birdies on the first five holes and briefly raised him into a tie for the lead.

But here on the eastern end of Long Island, Koepka, 28, was the man, as he was a year ago at Erin Hills, in the woods south of Milwaukee.

A few days ago, he showed up for a pre-Open press conference and told us that although one course is smack in Middle America and the other along the Atlantic coast, there were similarities.

“The fairways were pretty wide both places,” he said. Another similarity, of course, is the champion, a 6-foot, 185-pounder who could be playing linebacker, would rather be playing shortstop and is delighted to be playing golf. 

And, after a wrist injury that forced him to miss weeks in the winter and spring, including the Masters in April, quite happy to be playing without restrictions.

“I think the first day I hit balls, everything came out exactly the way it should have,” said Koepka. “I felt like I didn’t miss three months. It was frustrating, sitting on the couch, not doing anything. I couldn’t pick up anything with my left hand. I was in a soft cast up to my elbow.”

When Koepka won the Open in 2017, there were skeptics, some contending that Erin Hills, never used for high-level competition previously, was not up to U.S. Open standards — as if he didn’t deserve the championship.

“I mean,” said Koepka, “I always feel I’m overlooked. I could care less. It doesn’t bug me. I just kind of keep doing what I’m doing.”

What he was doing a few years back was playing the European Tour, learning the game, learning himself and learning to adapt to conditions not familiar to a kid growing up in Florida. So when he hit the PGA Tour, he was ready. As his two U.S. Open victories verify.

You know what happened this week: Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth missed the cut. Phil Mickelson embarrassed himself by slapping a putt around like a hockey puck and shooting 81 (Phil had a 69 Sunday); Rickie Fowler stumbled to an 84 Saturday and shot 65 Sunday; Dustin Johnson went from four ahead on Friday to two behind on Sunday.

And Brooks Koepka won the U.S. Open for a second consecutive year.

Move over, Curtis.


U.S. Open third round: Chaos among the sand traps

By Art Spander

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Chaos among the sand traps. Phil Mickelson playing by his own rules, or his interpretation of the rules. Dustin Johnson playing by the skin of his teeth.

The wind blew, the bogies grew and the 118th U.S Open turned into a golf tournament of as many opinions as strokes.

Johnson had his seemingly solid lead get away before recapturing part of it Saturday in an agonizing third round at Shinnecock Hills, which definitively didn’t let its reputation as a brutal, testing course get away.

The last time the Open was here, at the eastern end of Long Island, caught between the devil and the deep, blue sea, was in 2004, and Shinnecock was so unfair that the sponsoring body, the U.S. Golf Association, decided to water the greens in the middle of the fourth round.

This time, looking for redemption as well as a tough championship, the USGA said it had learned from past mistakes and would keep Shinnecock playable. But as approach shots rolled for miles after hitting greens and golfers lost strokes along with their confidence, that promise appeared not to have been kept.

The USGA apologized for course condtions, as if that would ease the pain of those with bad scores. "Thanks guys did Bozo set the course," tweeted Ian Poulter, who shot 76.

 David Fay, a former executive director of the USGA, went on Fox TV and said the course was “close to the edge,” but Zach Johnson, a former Masters and British Open champion, who shot a 2-over-par 72, insisted, “It’s not on the edge, it’s surpassed it. It’s gone.”

That was the word that we believed would apply to Dustin Johnson, who began the day with a four-shot advantage. But it was the advantage that was gone, in a virtual flash. Dustin made double bogey on two and bogies on four, six, seven and eight, and with a 6-over 41 on the front nine he fell behind last year’s winner at Erin Hills, Brooks Koepka, and Henrik Stenson.

When the round finally was done, however, Dustin Johnson, even shooting a 7-over 41-36-77, was in a four-way tie for first at a not-surprisingly high total (for the Open) of 3-over for 54 holes, 213.

Sharing with him were Koepka (72) and two golfers who, because they were so far back after two rounds, had morning tee times, and they beat the wind — and everybody else on the course — with 4-under 66s, Paul Berger and Tony Finau.

Another shot back at 4-over 214 was 2013 winner Justin Rose, who virtually one-putted everything in sight (at least on the front) for a 73. Stenson was at 5-over 215.

Mickelson, on his 48th birthday and as frustrated as anybody — while others kept their emotions in check — had an 11-over 81 that included a two-shot penalty for hitting a moving ball when it rolled off the green at 13.

Fay, the former chief, said on TV that Mickelson should have been disqualified, but the question is whether the golfer is trying to keep the ball from rolling away or just hitting it when it is rolling.

“Phil didn’t purposely deflect or stop the ball,” said John Bodenhamer, managing director of championships for the USGA, alluding to a rule.

What Phil did, however, was a poor reflection of a man who has won every major except the U.S. Open, as if he could do what he wants.

“It was going to go down in the same spot behind the bunker,” said Mickelson, referring to where he earlier had played from. “I wasn’t going to have a shot.” So he had 10 shots. “I know it’s a two-shot penalty.”

Yes, the Open drives men mad.

Rickie Fowler shot 84 Saturday. His total of 226 was one lower than Mickelson’s 227. That two golfers far out of contention became newsworthy is part of the Open’s mystique and confusion. A few rounds at a course where par is almost impossible has golfers talking — and the media listening.

“I didn’t feel like I played badly at all,” said Dustin Johnson. “Seven over, you know, usually is a terrible score, but I mean with the way the greens got this afternoon ... they were very difficult.

“A couple of putts today I could have putted off the green. But it’s the U.S. Open. It’s supposed to be tough.”

Shinnecock was. Very, very tough.



The Open: Tiger won’t win; Dustin probably will

By Art Spander

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Halfway through a U.S. Open low in excitement and high in scoring, two assumptions are possible: Tiger Woods definitely will not win and Dustin Johnson probably will.

Neither could be considered a surprise.

Woods unquestionably was once the best golfer in the world. That was then, before aging and injuries. This is now, when Johnson could be considered the best golfer in the world. If nothing else, he’s No. 1 in the world rankings.

And after 36 holes at Shinnecock Hills Country Club, way out on Long Island, he’s in first place of this 118th Open by four strokes, at 4-under 69-67-136, the only player under par.

Woods was tied for 86th place, meaning nowhere, because only the low 60s and ties made the cut to play in the final two rounds. Tiger wasn’t bad in Friday’s second round (stop asking, “compared to whom?”). He shot a 2-over 72. If only he hadn’t shot 78 on Thursday.

That’s when, asked about his mindset after a round that included a triple bogey and two doubles, Woods advised, “Shoot something in the 60s (Friday) and I’ll be just fine.”

He didn’t and he wasn’t. That’s what happens in sports. You can plan, you can practice, but in the end you have to produce. 

Tiger produced for years. Now the production is from Johnson, trying for his second Open championship in three years. “Dustin,” said Woods, grouped with Johnson, “was in complete control of what he’s doing.”

Such a glorious feeling in golf. In life. For everything to go the way we want it, if only for a brief while. Yet bliss can end in the blink of an eye.

In football, the line is you’re always one play away from an injury. In golf, you’re one swing away from disaster — or from success.

Johnson is well aware. He led another U.S. Open, in 2010 at Pebble Beach, and in the final round, his drive on two landed in a bunker. The next thing he and we knew, Dustin went triple bogey, double bogey, bogey on two, three and four, respectively, losing six shots like that and blowing himself out of the tournament.

What Ian Poulter did on Friday at Shinnecock wasn’t quite as severe, but it was no less unfortunate. One shot behind at eight, his 17th hole of the round, Poulter went into a bunker on his approach, bladed the sand shot and took a triple bogey. Then he bogeyed nine.

“It looks really stupid,” Poulter said of his mis-hitting. “I felt stupid knifing the first one. I felt even more stupid chunking the next one. And I didn’t do much better on the next one either.”

A humbling game, golf. Such a harsh description. Such an honest description. Tiger Woods? Five amateurs had lower scores for two rounds in this Open than Tiger. One of them, Matt Parziale, is a fireman in Brockton, Mass. He made the cut.

What a strange Open his has been, with the stars making bogies and double bogies — but Phil Mickelson at least made the cut; Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy did not — the weather turning from light morning wind and rain to late afternoon stillness and sunshine.

Johnson went off the 10th tee at 8:02 a.m. EDT with Woods and Justin Thomas. Conditions were less than ideal. Yet when you’re playing well, the weather is secondary. You just hit and march on.

“Starting out,” said Johnson, “through our first seven or eight holes it was breezy and overcast. So it felt like the course was playing really difficult. But I got off to a nice start. I kind of hung in there and made some good saves for pars.”

Woods, 42, had years of success. He believes he’ll find it once more, which is understandable, if not quite realistic. His putting, once magnificent, now is best described as mediocre. And there’s no record of a golfer who became a better putter as he got older.

“You don’t win major championships,” said Woods, who has won 14, “by kind of slapping all over the place and missing putts. You have to be on.”

Which is why, while others play the last two rounds, he’s off.



Tiger, Phil, Rory, Jordan battered at the Open; welcome to the past

By Art Spander

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Welcome to the past. Welcome to the days when the U.S. Open was full of double bogies and angry faces, when the greens were as slick as a con man running a street corner crap game and players almost could lose a ball while inexorably they were losing strokes.

Sure, some people didn’t fall victim. Four golfers were even under par in Thursday’s first round at historic Shinnecock Hills, which is so far out on Long Island it seems nearer to London than Manhattan.

But they were only at 1-under, so the four, with scores of 69, Scott Piercy, Ian Poulter, Russell Henley and Dustin Johnson, shared the lead.

But that was just four golfers out of 156. On opening day, when usually at least a dozen — occasionally a dozen and a half — break par. And other than Johnson, Open winner in 2016 at Oakmont, none of the four would be labeled a marquee attraction — like Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy.

Those guys could be found stomping around in the rough that makes America’s golfing championship the test it can be. They also could be found way, way down the scoreboard, although not as far down as Scott Gregory, a 23-year-old Englishman who having won the British Amateur two years ago upped and turned pro. Oops.

Gregory, with 10 bogies, three double-bogies, two triple-bogies and only three pars, shot a 22-over 92, the highest score in a U.S. Open in 16 years and sighed, “I didn’t get it off the tee.”

He meant onto the fairway. On a day when the wind blew in off the neighboring Atlantic, some of the more accomplished and better known golfers had the same problem.

In the morning, three of the game’s more famous competitors, Mickelson, McIlroy and Jordan Spieth, were grouped — and were battered, Mickelson shooting a 7-over 77 and coming in lowest among the threesome.

Spieth had his worst Open round ever, a 78, and McIlroy, with seven bogies, three double bogies and three birdies, shot 80.

Tiger, with an afternoon tee time, began with a triple-bogey 7, botched a comeback with consecutive double-bogies at 13 and 14 and shot an 8-over 78.

At least Woods talked after his misfortunes. So give him points for that even if his game was less than impressive.

“It was tough out there, but you shouldn’t make two doubles in a row,” said Woods. “It was frustrating because I hit the ball well. A four-putt. For most of the day, I didn’t putt well.”

Mickelson, who needs an Open for a career grand slam, and McIlroy, who lacks the Masters for his slam, signed their cards and silently slipped away — if silently is an accurate description when fans are hollering for autographs.

Spieth, who has won the Masters, U.S. and British Opens — clever grouping, huh, three guys one short of history — did speak post-round, if for someone who normally explains everything and anything, with uncharacteristic brevity.

“Very difficult,” said Spieth. “Got it off to a good start. It was hard after that. You just have to stay patient and understand that you are going to shoot four-over par once you are four-under through two holes.

“I tried to do too much on the second hole, and it kind of bit me. From there it was kind of a grind. There were certainly some dicey pins, but at the same time there were guys under par. So I could have played better.”

That’s a comment that used to be heard at Opens, where even-par or higher was the eventual winning score. In 1974, seven-over par was good enough on another New York course maybe 100 miles from Shinnecock. That led to a championship for Hale Irwin and a book about the struggle, Massacre at Winged Foot, by the late Dick Schaap.

Things were less severe after that. In fact, for a while the Open didn’t quite look like the Open.

But it did on Thursday, with tough conditions and high scores.

And you were reminded of a comment by Tony Lema, the Oakland kid who became a winner. “The Masters,” said Lema, comparing, “is fun. The U.S. Open is work.”

As it should be.