Entries in Open (10)


Grillo wins the Open that others let slip away

By Art Spander

NAPA, Calif. — They weren’t marquee names. That’s for sure. And as the leaders wobbled and stumbled through the last few holes of the Open, the opener of the PGA Tour schedule, you wondered if this was the future of golf.

Yes, the kid who won — Emiliano Grillo, age 23, which makes him a kid — has a considerable amount of talent, but the way the most of the other four players with whom he once was tied came to the finish line was unsettling.

Maybe if one or two had been people like Charl Schwartzel or Justin Rose, who were three shots back, or Rory McIlroy, who despite a final-round 69 was six behind, the view would be less critical. They were winners, major champions, able to handle the pressure.

But when you get Grillo, Kevin Na, Tyrone Van Aswegen, Justin Thomas and Jason Bohn, each of whom was tied for first at one point, well, you get golfers who rarely had been in pressure situations and then basically couldn’t handle that pressure.

Poor Brendan Steele also should be been included, perhaps. He led from the first day until the back nine Sunday but with a closing 76 dropped to a tie for 17th. It’s tough out here, very tough.

Grillo, with a 69, and Na, who shot 70, finally ended up at 15-under-par 273 on Silverado’s North Course, a shot in front of Van Aswegen (68), Thomas (69) and Bohn (70). 

Grillo and Na each parred the first extra hole, the 18th, of the sudden-death playoff, Grillo blowing a four-foot birdie putt.

Then, as shadows of the oaks and fir trees lengthened across the course, they went back to the 18th, where Na, 32, a one-time winner, took a silly gamble and used his driver for his second shot. The ball sailed to the left, and by the time he finished the hole, Na had a bogey six. To his credit, Grillo had a birdie.

Also to his credit, Grillo, from Argentina and just off the Tour, the Triple A league if you will, became the first player since Russell Henley in 2013 to win his first tournament after becoming a fulltime Tour member.

Grillo thus qualifies for the Masters — “The Masters,” he said, “it’s unbelievable” — and several other huge tournaments, including The Players.

It’s a funny sport, golf. One day you’re a virtual nobody, the next day you might be a star, as is Grillo’s longtime friend Jordan Spieth, who this past calendar year won the Masters and U.S. Open and was a shot out of a playoff in the British Open.

Spieth, now 22, and Grillo were competitors as juniors. Spieth offered congratulations on Twitter.

When someone asked if he thought he were catching Spieth, the Player of the Year for 2015, Grillo said, “Well, I’m definitely closer. I need what, five more wins? Two majors. There is a long way. I mean he is top-ranked in the world. That says it all.”

What Jason Bohn was saying was, “I was a little disappointed the way I finished the last three holes.” And he should be.

Bohn was 15-under and a shot ahead after the 15th, a difficult par-three. But he bogied the par-five 16th, parred the short 17th and then after smacking his second shot against a gallery fence parred the par-five 18th. It was his Frys to lose, and he lost.

“Maybe a little bit of nerves,” said Bohn. “I was fairly focused at 16 there where I just kind of laid the side over and chunked it. Kind of really throws a shock into the mind because you know you’re not thinking anything like that. That kind of rattled me a bit.”

Na denied ever being rattled, reminded that he birdied four of the last six to get into the playoff and insisted he had used a driver off the fairway — or “off the deck,” as the pros remark — five or six times during the four rounds.

“I was confident,” he said of the errant shot on the second playoff hole. “Only thing is it was dark. It’s a lot tougher. The ball was above my feet. Maybe I should have hit a 3-wood. Probably caught (the driver) a 16th or 18th of an inch heavy and the club just turned over.”

This Frys seemed to offer a turnover in golf, people we barely knew getting in position and, in the case of Grillo, getting a victory while the others missed out.

Grillo had become a bit infamous Saturday when his tee shot on the 17th nearly skulled McIlroy on the green. It was a problem with communication, said Grillo, who was unable to see the green from the tee.

“I almost actually ran across a few fairways to apologize to him,” said Grillo. “I didn’t want to be the guy who almost hit Rory McIlroy this week.”

What he hit instead was the jackpot. When all the wobbling ended there was Emiliano Grillo standing solid.

10:40PM Open a chance to see how good the pros are

By Art Spander

NAPA, Calif. — So it isn’t Augusta National. Or Pebble Beach. Still, Silverado is a wonderful, little and now historic country club course that enables amateurs who play it to have a decent round — and also to appreciate just how good the touring pros are. If they didn’t previously.

That slogan, “These Guys Are Good,” has outlasted its shelf life in this world of constant revision, but indeed these guys are good — very good, low-60s good. Because three rounds into this Open, everyone high on the leader board has a round in the mid to low 60s.

Saturday’s guy was Andrew Loupe, who shot a nine-under-par 63. That’s one off the course record. And the same that Brendan Steele shot Thursday. Or one better than Kevin Na and Jason Bohn shot on Saturday.

Steele, as he has been from the first round, was in first with a 63-70-69—202, 14 under par. Loupe and Na, at 203, not only share second but the distinction of being arguably the two slowest players on the Tour. A year ago, Johnny Miller, who now owns a fraction of Silverado (and won here twice in the 1970s), told his NBC-TV audience about Loupe, “If everyone on Tour played like him, I’d stop commenting.”

Johnny hasn’t stopped, meaning perhaps Loupe has sped up his routine — he once took seven practice swings — or Miller has become more tolerant.

There are a ton of players, eight to be specific, tied for fourth at 204. That group includes Justin Rose, Harold Varner III and Graham DeLaet, but it does not include Rory McIlroy, the Irishman trying to get back the lead in the world golf rankings. McIlroy is at 210, eight shots back after a second straight 71, and tied for 39th. Yes, 39th.

In addition, he nearly got skulled while on the green of the short (375-yard) 17th, reachable by long hitters who cut a dogleg where oak trees flourish. “Missed me by a couple of inches," said McIlroy. “Would have put me out of misery.”

He’s joking. McIlroy, who is third in the rankings behind Jordan Spieth and Jason Day, neither of whom is here in the opening event of the 2015-16 Tour, flew Tuesday from his home. He was obligated to enter after receiving an exemption of three years to skip the event and hoped it would give him a jump-start instead of waiting until February or March.

“I came here with the intention of trying to play well,” said McIlroy, who splits his time between the European and PGA Tours. “I’m here. I might as well give it my best shot.”

Loupe, 26, was born and resides in Baton Rouge. Yes, he graduated from LSU, in sports administration. Yes, he sped off after the round to watch the LSU-Florida game. “I love ’em,” he said when someone asked about the Tigers.

He also had to love a round of 31-32—63 that included 10 birdies and one bogey. “It was a fabulous day,” affirmed Loupe. Also one that didn’t take as long as some feared.

Steele, who’s from the little community of Idyllwild in the mountains above Palm Springs, gave a few clichés and, smart fellow that he is — a UC Riverside grad — conceded they were clichés.

“Sundays are tough,” said Steele about the final round. “Fridays when you’re hanging around the cut line and Sundays when you’re in the lead, those are the two toughest times. That’s when the character comes out.

“Any Sunday you’re in good position, you feel like every shot is important. You have to try the best you can. I mean, all the super cliché phrases, one shot at a time, and stick to the process and all that stuff. But it’s true. They are clichés for a reason.”

Steele is in first for a reason. He’s made only four bogeys in 54 holes, three Friday and one Saturday, the latter on the tricky, uphill eighth hole. “I can’t control what the other guys are going.”

That’s both the best and worst part of golf. There’s no defense. There’s the opportunity to shoot a terrific round. At Silverado, a course basically for amateurs, the pros have been shooting one terrific round after another. Those guys are good.


Brendan Steele, down the mountain and up Fry’s golf leader board

By Art Spander

NAPA, Calif. — So it’s the first tournament of the new PGA Tour season Thursday and on his sixth hole of the round — the 15th, since he began at the 10th — Brendan Steele already has four birdies and has playing partner Steve Wheatcroft shaking his head.

“I made like three 20-footers in a row,” Steele said almost apologetically, “and he was like, ‘Just hang in there, it’s a long season. You’ll make one eventually.’” Oh those pros, determined to get under your skin, as well as under par.

On this first day of the wrap-around 2015-16 season, Steele was way under, minus-nine, a 63 at Silverado Country Club’s North Course, atop the leader board but only by a shot over Jhonhattan Vegas. Another shot back, at 65, is Harold Varner III, who Tuesday talked about being one of the few African-Americans on the Tour.

The big guns had big days. Justin Rose was among those at 67. And a satisfied Rory McIlroy shot 68, saying, “It definitely was a step in the right direction.” But the biggest day was Steele’s, a 29 on the back, a 34 on the front that included birdies on holes 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18 and without anything worse than a par.

“It’s always hard to just to have a solid nine,” Steele philosophized, “after you shoot six, seven-under on one side.” He’s 33, a golfer despite growing up in the mountains southwest of Palm Springs, in Idyllwild, where the nearest course was in the desert town of Hemet, 22 miles of winding road distant.

Brendan was a baseball and soccer kid until visiting his half-brother, who lived at Newport Beach and played golf. “I wanted to do everything my big brother did,” said Steele.

Steele’s father, Kent, an attorney who had escaped the hassle of Beverly Hills and Los Angeles, a hundred miles down I-10, put up a net and dug out a bunker in the backyard of their home. “That’s sort of where I learned to play,” said Steele.

Then he would ride buses, leaving at 5:45 a.m. from Idyllwild, elevation 5,600 feet, to Hemet High, at the 1,200 foot level. “I started when I was 13,” said Steele, “so pretty late for PGA Tour players, but I just fell in love with the game and found a way to get in some practice when I could.”

Steele played for UC Riverside, not too far from Hemet, graduating in 2005 with a degree in business. He qualified for the Tour in 2011 and with his wife, Anastassia, moved to Irvine in Orange County, where there are no mountains but dozens of courses and one airport, John Wayne.

“I didn't think much of it at the time,” said Steele, referring to his mother and father’s drives up and down what he refers to as “the hill” to take him to and from golf practice. “I just thought that’s what parents do. Looking back, it’s a pretty big sacrifice they made.”

All sports require sacrifice of some sort whether it’s a mom hauling a kid — think of Kutida Woods, Tiger’s mother — or a kid spending hours hitting baseballs or golf balls. Or jump shots.

“I’m doing a lot of things that I didn’t do before,” said Steele, “and kind of understanding how to play better.”

What McIlroy, the Irishman who is No. 3 in the world, understands is if you want to be high in the Tour’s FedEx Cup standings as well as the Euro Tour’s Race To Dubai, you have to be competing. He said because he didn’t enter events in America until March, he felt he was playing catch-up.

Now he’s in at the start, and he believes he's in for some good times as well as very good golf.

“I’ve never been to this area before,” he said of the Napa Valley, maybe 60 miles north of San Francisco — where in May McIlroy took the Cadillac match play. “You can see why everyone is so relaxed. Beautiful weather, a lot of stuff to do away from the golf course. Trying to find a balance between enjoying myself this week and still trying to play well. Yeah, it’s a great event. I’m obviously very happy to be here.”

Brendan Steele, the man who came down the mountain, would second the motion.


McIlroy and Rose get the most of Silverado 

By Art Spander

NAPA, Calif. — No comments about those golf pros having it tough, being forced to play out here because several were allowed to go to Turkey for a tournament that offered big guarantees, which are not allowed on the PGA Tour.

Yes, Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose and Charl Schwartzel, major champions all, are entered in the Open, which starts today at Silverado. And while golfers prize their freedom — "independent contractors" is the description employed — it isn’t as if they’re being forced to wash dishes in the clubhouse.

“I didn’t know anything about the golf course,” McIlroy said Wednesday after his pro-am round. “Expected vineyards, wine, good food. Got all those boxes ticked (Tuesday) night. So...”

So, he’s not ticked but agreeable. “I’ve always loved playing in California,” said Rory, who back in May won the WGC Cadillac match play at San Francisco’s Harding Park, maybe 60 miles south of here.

“I love the climate and the fresh air and the surroundings,” he explained. “I’ve always felt quite comfortable here. It’s nice to come back.”

To the state, that is — large as California might be, with the only resemblance among the Olympic Club in San Francisco, where he competed in the 2012 U.S. Open, Pebble Beach and Sherwood in Southern California is that each has 18 holes.

At the moment, for the Frys, McIlroy is the man. He’s third in the world rankings, dropping from first because of the spectacular years of Jordan Spieth, who won two majors, and Jason Day, who won one, and respectively are first and second.

McIlroy, who spent the last two weeks home in Northern Ireland, if goofing around with the national team in the World Rugby Championship, looks back wistfully at the previous season — the Frys is the opening event of 2016 — because he didn’t win a major.

“I would say it was a good season; it wasn’t a great season,” he said. “I feel like I’m at a point in my career where a great season is defined by major championships.”

McIlroy has four of those, two PGAs, a U.S. Open and a British Open, and the two he won back-to-back in 2014 elevated him to No. 1 in the world. Thus, as do people such as Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, neither of whom is at the Frys, Rory is competing against himself and his record as much as the other golfers.

McIlroy is 26 and worldly, as might be expected from someone who has played everywhere from Dubai to China to, well, Napa. He’s quite sharp, with a wonderful sense of humor. During the PGA at Whistling Straits, he pointed out that eras in golf used to mean about 20 years, but now they last about five minutes.

This might have truly been the Rory era, or at least his year had he not missed more than a month, and a chance to defend the British Open championship, because he tore ligaments playing soccer in July.  But as long as he is off the tee, there’s little doubt that McIlroy once more will be among the best.

“It’s about reassessing your goals,” said McIlroy, “and not being too disappointed. I think it’s not about being disappointed if you didn’t reach a certain goal but picking yourself back up and moving forward and looking ahead. If you don’t play well, you can always play well the next week.”

Rose played well for three of the four weeks of the 2015 majors but didn’t win any of them. He was 14 under par at the Masters and PGA and 11 under at the British and had nothing better than a second place, that at Augusta behind Spieth.

“I have a system,” said Rose, winner of the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion. “I have a heavy training week and do all the things always two weeks prior to when I want to peak. This year I did a good job preparing for the majors and peaking for them. I had three top sixes (sixth in the British, fourth in the PGA). So I’m doing a pretty good job of targeting.”

Rose made a special trip after the pro-am to see Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors, who was playing, as was teammate Andre Iguodala. Although born in South Africa and raised in England, Rose, 35, lives much of the year in Orlando and watches the NBA’s Magic.

“The one American sport I probably watch most,” said Rose. “In New Orleans this year, I went to one of the games, Golden State playing New Orleans, and I saw (Curry) play for the first time. I was just struck by his confidence.

“He started the game really hot. Kind of went cold in the middle of the game and had a great buzzer-beater right at the end of the game. My caddy, during the New Orleans tournament, we got off to a good start. Felt like I went a little bit cold. My caddy said, ‘Remember, Steph. He just kept wanting the ball and kept shooting. Do the same. Just see the putts going in.’

“That kind of sparked a little run for me. Somehow that got back to Steph. The following week we fly to San Francisco. It’s match play week. I take a day off and am walking in Union Square. Who do I bump into? Steph Curry. He was out shopping with his wife. Heard about my sort of giving him some love. I just wanted to go over and say hi in more familiar surroundings for me than downtown San Francisco.”

And all because Rose and Rory have to be at Silverado.


At the Open, a glimpse of the Tour without Tiger

By Art Spander

NAPA, Calif. — This is what golf will be in the coming years. This is the way golf is at the present. They’re playing the PGA Tour without Tiger Woods, at least for a while. A new season but old worries. What happens to the game?

The Open starts Thursday at Silverado Country Club. It’s a place with a great history, a place where Johnny Miller and Jack Nicklaus have won, as if that has any effect on the game in 2015.

They keep telling us golf is in great shape. That people such as Rory McIlroy, who is entered in this, and Jordan Spieth, who isn’t entered, will keep the fans attentive and interested. But golfers have always followed the game. It’s the non-golfers that golf needs.

Bill Veeck understood sports and show business. He owned several major league teams, the Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns and Chicago White Sox. The Browns — awful, trapped in the shadow of the St. Louis Cardinals — would eventually become the Baltimore Orioles, but in St. Louis they were all but ignored. Until the stunt.

Veeck signed a midget, Eddie Gaedel, then sent him to bat. Gaedel walked on four pitches, of course, and whether the idea was brilliant or idiotic didn’t matter, it would not go unnoticed. “If you had to depend on baseball fans for your support,” Veeck reminded, “you’d be out of business by Mothers’ Day.”

Golf isn’t going out of business, for certain. And yet, neither is it going as it did when Woods was the attraction. He was golf’s Eddie Gaedel, in a matter of speaking. He brought in an entire new constituency, people unfamiliar with game, who probably didn’t know a sand wedge from a sandwich. But after Woods’ spectacular introduction, the 1997 record Masters win, and the “Hello, World” commercial, they were Woods fans. Not golf fans, per se, but Woods fans.

So now there’s no Tiger Woods, as he rehabs from a second back surgery, so now that his 40th birthday is some two and a half months away, what happens to the Woods fans? Will they shift loyalties to someone like Rory or Spieth or Jason Day — or even Phil Mickelson? Or will they just end their brief relationship with the sport?

Golf is an individual sport. If you’re a Cubs fan and have suffered through the years you remain a Cubs fan, whether it’s Ernie Banks in the lineup or Kris Bryant. But if you’re a Tiger fan, especially one never previously involved in golf, it’s different.

Arnold Palmer was golf’s first superstar, starting in the late 1950s when golf and television formed a happy alliance. As he declined and later as Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Greg Norman declined — not to imply they had the unique appeal of Woods — some connected to the Tour advised journalists to write about the new guys and not the old ones.

“Let your readers know about all the great players out here,” was the usual admonition. The trouble was they knew but often didn’t care. And not much has changed, even with 2013 U.S. Open winner Justin Rose grouped in the first two rounds of this Frys with McIlroy and AT&T Pebble Beach winner Brandt Snedekder. Great players without Tiger's magic.

Tiger’s gone for a while, until next February or March. After that, let’s say another five years, because of the injuries and operations, two on the back, four on the left knee, Woods may be forced to retire and, barring a commemorative appearance, gone forever.

And for those who think it won’t make a difference, look at what occurred during the Wyndham event in August. He made an unscheduled appearance in an attempt to qualify for the Tour Championship events, and the crowds were far greater than in previous years without him in the field.

Woods, as the line goes, still moves the needle. Some dislike him, after the stories of his personal life. Some idolize him, acknowledging the 14 majors he’s won. But nobody disregards him. He’s still a story, even now when he’s not a story.

The golf tour without Tiger Woods? For better or worse, that’s the way it’s going to be.