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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.

 

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.

8:58PM

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