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6:02PM

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.

 

9:10PM

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.

10:54PM

Only one Tiger Woods

By Art Spander

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — It’s always been this way, hasn’t it, a world of stardom — in sports, the theater, even academics. Pavarotti was bigger than any opera in which he appeared.

In golf, it was Tiger Woods. In golf, it still is Tiger Woods.

He earned the recognition, certainly, as did Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. And yet, one could argue, the sport these days belongs to Jordan Spieth or Rory McIlroy.

What’s Tiger done lately, other than being Tiger?

You mean that isn’t enough? Then you don’t understand television. Or newspapers. Or tournament golf. Or celebrity.

Is it fair that ESPN spends so much time on Tiger when, say, he’s in 14th place going into the final round?

Short answer: No. Next question.

So far, heading into this 118th U.S. Open, which starts Thursday at Shinnecock Hills, the stories that haven’t been about Phil Mickelson, runner-up six times but no wins, or about Jordan Spieth, in a putting slump, have been about Woods.

About his return to the Open after missing the last three with his back problems; about the fact it’s been a decade since his last Open (and major) victory, 2008 at Torrey Pines; about his wonderful iron play and erratic putting.

In the NBA, it’s LeBron James, even though Steph Curry and Kevin Durant win titles. In the NFL, it’s Tom Brady, who does win titles. And in tennis it’s Serena Williams, who wins everything and even consents to having a documentary, “Being Serena,” made of her life and game.

Tiger is 42 and hasn’t won a PGA-sanctioned event for five years. And that makes him even more interesting. Can he still do it? Probably; you don’t lose greatness — and if so, when?

This is the last year of Woods’ U.S. Open exemption, an item that’s irrelevant. Somehow, knowing sponsors want a bang for their bucks, meaning good TV ratings, Tiger will be in the field for 2019 — at Pebble Beach, where Woods won in 2000.

For the first years of his career, after he left Stanford, turned pro and turned the game upside down and inside out, winning four majors in succession, breaking records, it was about Tiger’s golf. Then, beginning with the disclosures of infidelity, it became about Tiger’s life, the kids, the back surgeries, the recovery periods, the arrest for a DUI when he was on pain killers.

For nearly a quarter century he’s been on the course and in the headlines, captivating the purists, fascinating the curious, someone whose blend of ethnic background in an almost entirely Caucasian sport and virtually unmatched record of achievement made him unique.

And the manner in which he gained his last major, on a painfully injured knee that had him grimacing as he walked toward that ’08 Open, needing 91 holes to edge Rocco Mediate, was heroic stuff.

There’s been no one like Tiger, and while it’s dangerous to make such a prediction, surely there will never be anyone like Tiger.

So what he accomplishes from now on or fails to accomplish cannot be minimized. He’s not the best golfer these days; he remains the best story any day.

Change is inevitable in sports. Athletes grow older and decline, and while there always will be replacements, people who can hit as far, run as fast, the dynamic may be different.

Not too long ago, when Tiger was struggling, the thought — guilty, your honor — was that Rory McIlroy would be the new Tiger. Didn’t they make commercials together? Didn’t Rory win a few majors?

McIlroy is a fine golfer. So is Spieth. So are Patrick Reed, Jason Day and the others who are champions. What we have come to realize is they are not Tiger Woods. They don’t, as the cliché goes, move the needle.

The guess is that more people are wondering what Woods will do in this U.S. Open than anyone else in the field, wondering if he can find the touch with the putter that helped him to 14 major victories, four behind Nicklaus. 

“In a major,” said Woods about the Open, “the mistakes are magnified, as they should be. I’m looking forward to having the opportunity and having the challenge. Whether there’s any extra pressure, I think that’s just natural there would be.

“I mean, it’s a major championship. There’s only four of these a year.”

And in golf, only one Tiger Woods.

9:17AM

Newsday (N.Y.): Tiger Woods disappointed he’s not getting the job done at Masters

By Art Spander
Special to Newsday

AUGUSTA, Ga. — It was an exciting few weeks leading to this Masters, calling down echoes, believing — maybe the proper word is hoping — that Tiger Woods at 42 would contend again in a tournament like he did when he was younger.

Out of nowhere he was the betting favorite — memory sometimes overwhelms reality — and mainly because of Woods’ presence in the field for the first time since 2015.

Read the full story here.

Copyright © 2018 Newsday. All rights reserved. 

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.