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8:49AM

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.

 

10:43PM

No fun for most on a tough day at the Masters

By Art Spander

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tony Lema, a San Leandro kid whose brief life provided both success in and insight into golf, told us that the difference between the Masters and the U.S. Open is the difference between fun and fear.

Yes, the Open, with its narrow fairways and heavy rough, can be punishing. But the men who flailed around Augusta National on Friday in the second round of the 2018 Masters may have a definition of fun that is not quite the same as Lema’s.

Phil Mickelson, believing he had resurrected his game and his chances, had a triple bogey at nine, a double bogey at 12 and shot 79, seven over par. “Yeah,” said Mickelson, “it was a rough day.“

Tiger Woods had a double bogey and shot 75, three over. “I hit my irons awful today,” said Woods, who at least made the cut — as did Mickelson. “So many beautiful putts, but nothing went in today. Didn’t control distances, shapes or anything.”

Jordan Spieth, the overnight leader, started double bogey, bogey and then managed to shoot 74. “I just had two really bad tee shots the first two holes,” said Spieth, “and then the course was very difficult today.”

Not for Patrick Reed. He shot a 66 and is at 135, two shots in the lead. Or Marc Leishman, a 67 for 137. But for almost everyone else, Augusta, with a slight breeze and challenging pin positions, was a struggle.

Which, of course, is proper for a major championship. Otherwise it’s not a major. But there was that idea, endorsed by Lema, that with its wide fairways, the Masters was enjoyable. It has been for Reed. It hasn’t been for Matt Kuchar, who shot a 75 Friday and explained, “It was a very, very hard day.”

Mickelson and Woods have won multiple Masters. Spieth has a single victory. But all the course knowledge and fine play doesn’t mean much when a shot smacks a tree, as did Mickelson’s on nine, or flies into the bushes, as did Tiger’s on five.

Matt Kuchar, with a 38 on the back nine (forgive me, Masters Gods, for not calling it the “second nine”), was visibly frustrated after a three-putt at 18 and a 75 for 143. “It was a very hard day,” he agreed. “I thought I hit a bunch of real good shots and walked away with a bogey, which is part of how it works here.”

How it works here, there and everywhere, is if you hit a perfect tee shot, a perfect approach and then a perfect putt, you probably make birdie. Probably, because as every golfer, pro to hacker, knows full well, an erratic bounce or a gust of wind may spoil all the apparent perfection.

And while it’s hard to accept when you’re the one in the vise, it’s sometimes refreshing when you’re just watching. “It’s one of those days,” said Kuchar, who finished early on, “where I’m kind of anxious to kick my feet up in the house and watch the guys deal with it the rest of the afternoon.”

Please, Matt, didn’t you ever read that advice in the spectator guide from Bobby Jones, the Augusta founder, that we’re not supposed to cheer the mistakes and misfortunes of the competitor?

“It was tough from the get-go,” said Kuchar. “It was never comfortable. I think this place keeps you on edge because of the fact on almost every hole, the line between birdie and bogey is so fine.”

“You either have to be sharp,” he said, “or you really have to be clean. I felt I was doing a whole lot of scrambling, and for the most part I was getting away with scrambling pretty well.”

Mickelson didn’t get away with it.

“There’s a disappointment between wanting it so bad and then also letting it kind of happen,” said the 47-year-old Mickelson. “As you get older, you feel a little bit more pressure with each one. I thought this was a great year, a great opportunity.”

It was, but on a tough day, he couldn’t do much with that opportunity.

8:37PM

Ted Potter beats Dustin — and everyone else at the AT&T

By Art Spander

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Ted Potter is what happens to golf. Which is the great thing about the game. Or, if you’re hoping for a winner who is famous, even familiar, conversely one of the problems.

It doesn’t matter if Potter isn’t one of those handsome young guys like Jordan Spieth or Dustin Johnson. Or one of those famous older guys like Phil Mickelson. He beat everyone, including Spieth, Johnson and Mickelson, to take the annual AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

Well, in a way it does matter, because golf, a sport without team loyalty as is tennis, needs instantly recognizable champions, so that those peripherally interested in the game won’t look up and ask, “Who’s he?”

Potter is a portly 34-year-old with thinning hair. You won’t be seeing him in any commercials. But after his three-shot victory Sunday, worth virtually $1.3 million, you will be seeing him high on the money list and, no less significantly, in the field of the Masters in three months.

You’d have thought Johnson, the world's No. 1, a two-time AT&T winner, would be the champion. He began the last round at Pebble Beach tied with Potter at 14 under par, and after two holes he had a one-shot lead.

But Dustin was the one who was stagnant, with a total of four bogies and four birdies, for a 72, while Potter, after a bogey on the first hole, made four birdies and no bogies over the next 17 holes for a 69.

That gave him a 72-hole total of 17-under 270. (Pebble and Spyglass Hill are par 72; the third course in the rotation, where Potter shot 62 Saturday, is Monterey Peninsula, par 71).

Tied for second at 273 were the 47-year-old Mickelson, who shot 67; Chez Reavie, 68; Day, 70, and Johnson. 

Potter, who turned pro out of high school in Florida, probably needed the victory more than Dustin and Phil, or Spieth and Day, major winners all. Nearly four years ago, in July 2014, after missing the cut in the Canadian Open, Potter, flip-flops on his feet, slipped off a curb near his Montreal hotel and broke his right ankle.

He was off the Tour for three years. Even at the AT&T, he entered as a Web.com Tour member and was unsure of getting into the coming week’s Genesis Open at Riviera in Southern California. But now he’s fully exempt, if still not fully known — by the public or some of his fellow competitors.

“There’s a lot of new guys I haven’t met in the last couple of years,” he conceded. ”It’s still an individual game.”

A game in which Potter, who six years ago won his only other Tour event, the 2012 Greenbrier Classic, struggled after his injury, at one point missing 24 cuts in a row. But fellow pro Russell Knox has said Potter is the most talented player he’s ever battled.

Talented, yes, but as Potter admits, a trifle lackadaisical. “I’ve never been a hard worker, I guess,” he said. “I mean, I’m probably better than I think I am.”

He and Johnson were in the final group Sunday, and even if it wasn’t match play there was a feeling of head-to-head. “I had a great day today,” Potter agreed. “Dustin wasn’t, I guess, on his game.”

Johnson said as much. He thought he was prepared, but shots just flew over Pebble’s small greens. They also did for Potter, but on the short par-3 7th, the signature hole, he chipped in for a birdie. “That was one of those moments,” said Potter, who hadn’t had many of late.

Mickelson, a four-time AT&T winner, made a strong run, an indication that although he doesn’t have a victory since the 2015 British Open, Phil might break through again.

“I’ve played similarly all four weeks,” Mickelson said of his rounds this year. “I’ve had much better results the last two weeks (he tied for fifth at the Waste Management Phoenix Open). I’m going to try and take the momentum and carry it to Riviera.”

As is Ted Potter, a Mr. Nobody who now very much is somebody.

8:27PM

Mickelson, man of the past, talks about the future

By Art Spander

NAPA, Calif. — It’s the past that makes us think of Phil Mickelson, the Masters triumphs, the battles with Tiger Woods, the win in the Tucson Open when he was a 20-year-old student at Arizona State. But for Phil and the golfer who beat him Sunday in the Safeway Open, the talk was of the future.

Even though at 47 Mickelson seemingly is near the end of his career on the regular PGA Tour.

Even though he hasn’t won since 2015.

Phil tied for third in the Safeway. The winner for a second straight year was Brendan Steele, at 15-under-par 273. Tony Finau was a shot back. Mickelson and Chesson Hadley were two more behind, at 276.

Two days ago, Mickelson made a bold forecast. He promised he would win. Maybe here, at Silverado Country Club. Maybe in China, where in two weeks he’ll make his next start, at a tournament where he’s twice finished first.

Steele, a southern Californian as is Mickelson, seconded the motion.

“He’s very close,” Steele said of Mickelson, with whom he plays frequently. “He’s been playing really well. I think the only thing that’s holding him back is missing a few fairways here and there.”

Which is what Phil did on the front nine on Sunday, shooting one-over 37. And then, after a run on the back nine, what he did on the little (370-yard) 17th, making a bogey after a birdie at 16 and before a closing birdie at 18.

Missing fairways has always been Mickelson’s weakness, as if a golfer who’s won five majors and 42 tournaments overall can be said to have a weakness. 

What he can do is get the ball into the cup, putting, chipping, blasting, and in golf there’s nothing more important.

You can recover from a shot into the trees. You can’t recover from missing three-footers.

Mickelson shot a two-over 70 the final day of this Safeway, his only round of the week out of the 60s, a score that was a shot worse than those of Steele and Finau.

“When I’ve been home with him,” said Steele, “he’s had good results. He’s trending in the right direction ... I don’t see any reason why he can’t be competitive for a really long time. I’ve always said I think Phil can win at Augusta well into his mid-50s, he knows the course so well. I don’t see him slowing down anytime soon.”

Mickelson won’t slow down over the next two weeks. He will stop, going east to attend parents day at Brown University in Providence, R.I, where the eldest of the Mickelson children, Amanda, is a freshman. Then we will see what happens on the course.

“The game has come back,” he insisted, “and my focus is much better.”

One of the problems for relatively older athletes is a loss of concentration. They perform well for a while, say an inning or two, a set or two, a round or two, and then they fall apart.

The oldest golfer to win a major was Julius Boros, 48, who took the PGA Championship back in the 1960s. Jack Nicklaus won the Masters at 46 in 1986. Subsequently he would return, get in contention and then make bogies.

Silverado played tough Sunday. There was a stiff wind, and the pins were on raised areas of the greens. Mickelson said he liked the challenge and also believed correctly that none of the leaders, including Steele, would get far ahead.

“It was fun to be in the mix,” he said, sounding like a rookie. “It was fun to have a chance.”

The optimism grows from the results.

“It’s just easy to see the ball starting on the right line,” he said. “Iron play’s back, distance control, putting. I’m staying (in the) present and hitting shots.”

What he most wants to hit after four years is the winner’s circle.

6:50PM

No Spieth or Thomas, but the Tour restarts with the Safeway

By Art Spander

NAPA, Calif. — No Jordan Spieth. No Justin Thomas. No real separation from the end of the last schedule — wasn’t that 10 minutes ago? — to the start of the next, which was Thursday. No problem for the PGA Tour?

Well...

Yes, the Safeway Open is here, smack in the middle of wine country, and so is one player everybody from Torrey Pines (where he grew up playing) to Turnberry knows, Phil Mickelson; a couple others who most know, two-time major winner Zach Johnson and defending champ Brendan Steele; and a great many the Tour hopes we’ll come to know.

Among the NFL and college football games, the baseball playoffs and the beginning of the NHL season — good lord, did the Sharks really play the Philly Flyers on Wednesday night? — perhaps you didn’t notice.

But that’s not your problem, that’s golf’s.

Golf follows the sun, and unlike the past two years, there’s a great deal of that and 80-degree temperatures at Silverado Country Club for the Safeway. Golf no longer follows the calendar.

We know it’s a spring and summer sport (in some minds, the Tour starts with the Masters in April and concludes with the PGA Championship in August). But the guys who haven’t picked up the big trophies and checks want to play all the time. And the PGA Tour wants to keep them playing.

So a little sleight of hand is required. Instead of making the fall events, the ones after the Tour Championship, seem like add-ons, the Tour wants us to believe that the year starts in October, right now, and not in January. OK, but it still hasn’t persuaded most of the big guns.

Golf and tennis, other than the top events such as the Masters, Wimbledon and so on, require individual stars. If you’re trying to get attention against the Raiders or 49ers, you need a Spieth. Or a Rory McIlroy (who played this tournament two years ago when it was the Frys Open). Or a Brooks Koepka. Everyone on Tour is an excellent golfer or he wouldn’t be on Tour. Only a few are excellent box-office attractions.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t compelling stories. Maverick McNealy, the best amateur in America, the Stanford grad who said he wouldn’t turn pro, is playing his first tournament as a pro at the Safeway (he shot 68). Sang-Moon Bae won this tournament in 2014 as the Frys and then had to spend two years in the Korean military (he shot 73). Chris Stroud is among the leaders of hurricane recovery efforts in his hometown, Houston (he shot 76).

It’s just that as in music and acting, some, through success and style — usually both — are ahead of the rest, making the world stop and check them out, even the part of the world that doesn’t really care about acting or singing. Or golf.

They may be one of many — there are dozens of fine golfers on Tour — but really they’re one of a kind. Tiger Woods could fill a gallery. Still can, even though his best golf is someplace in the distance. Just the name —Tiger Woods — gets us to stop.

Long ago, when Arnold Palmer was the man, those involved in tournaments would tell the media — actually, in those days it was the press — “Write about some of those other guys so the public will find out how interesting they are.” But legends are not invented, they develop. Tiger, Arnie, Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman and, yes, Mickelson earned their status.

Phil had one of the later tee times Thursday, and unsaid, you understood that was for The Golf Channel, which is showing the Safeway. He finished around 5:40 p.m. PDT, near sunset in California, some viewers home from work; at prime time in New York, just before Thursday night football.

Mickelson, with a 69, may not have been the leader — Steele, Tyler Duncan and Tom Hoge were in front with 7-under 65s — but he was the anchor. The TV schedule was proof. And Phil only was here because the agency that represents him, Lagardere, is running the tournament.

Whatever works. Or in the case of Jordan Spieth or Justin Thomas, whatever doesn’t. Fore!