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8:53AM

‘Errant’ Hills gets what it needed, a 63 by Justin Thomas

By Art Spander

ERIN, Wis. — They were calling it “Errant” Hills, saying it was the most forgettable course in U.S. Open history. But that changed on an historic Saturday, changed when a kid who’s been touted as one of the next greats went out and shot the lowest score in relation to par in the 117 years that the championship of American golf has been held.

If you didn’t know the name Justin Thomas, didn’t know he was destined to what was done on a warm, humid afternoon in the pastureland of Wisconsin, shoot a 9-under-par 63, well, you do now.

That’s been a magic score in majors, 63, since Johnny Miller, the kid from San Francisco, shot it the final round at Oakmont near Pittsburgh to win the 1973 Open. Since then, there have been numerous 63s, including one by Phil Mickelson last year in the British Open.

But none was at a par-72 course, like Erin Hills. Until Saturday.

“It was an awesome day,” said Thomas. ”I’m not sure when it’s going to sink in or when I’m going to realize what I did. I know one thing. If it happened (Sunday) and the result is what I want it to be, then I’d probably have a different feeling.”

Then he’d be a U.S. Open champion like his longtime pal and rival, Jordan Spieth.

But until Sunday it’s just a score to place in the record books, a score that verifies what sort of talent a 24-year-old who stands 5-foot-10 and weighs only 145 pounds can offer.

All that 63 was worth on the leaderboard was as part of a cumulative 11-under-par 73-69-63—205, tying Thomas for second with Brooks Koepka and Tommy Fleetwood, after Fleetwood double-bogied 18. Brian Harman holds the lead by a shot at 12-under 204.

Thomas had an eagle three on the 637-yard 18th, reaching the green in two and then holing the putt. “I was just trying to take advantage of the opportunities I had,” said Thomas.

More accurately, the opportunities he created.

The grandson and son of tour pros, Thomas, who grew up in Louisville, was a star before his teens. He once won two junior tournaments in a single day. At 16, he played in the Greensboro Tour event and shot 65.

“I was completely unconscious,” Thomas told Mark Whicker in 2015. “But I remembered how it motivated me. I was sitting in the players’ dining room and looking at all the food they get. They were making us omelets, and I was grabbing candy and ice cream. It was the coolest experience ever.”

That statement is up for amendment.

“I don’t know what I’m going to feel tonight,” he said. “I know I’m not going to sleep in. I’m going to be nervous, but it will be a good nervous.”

On Saturday, Thomas was saying how proud he was of his home town and the state of Kentucky, but he played his college golf at Alabama, helping the Crimson Tide win an NCAA title.

He has four PGA Tour wins, two in Malaysia in the CIMB and two in Hawaii. His friends, including Spieth, chide him, saying he’s never won on the American mainland.

“I mean, it would be special,” he said of this possibility. “It would be special, because it’s the U.S. Open, not because it’s on the mainland. I mean that’s kind of funny to me.”

The way Thomas plays golf is not at all funny, it’s exciting. At the Sony Open in January, he became the seventh player overall and the youngest to shoot a sub-60 round, a 59. Yes, he won.

Whether he wins this Open won’t be determined for another 18 holes, but obviously he’s in a great position after a great round. Then again, so are many others, including last year’s PGA champ, Patrick Reed, a star of the U.S. Ryder Cup team last year, and at 10-under the first-round leader, Rickie Fowler.

“As long as it’s a good tournament,” said Thomas, “I don’t think the USGA cares what the score is. They want a good tournament and an action-packed leaderboard. I mean, to be selfish I hope it isn’t, and I have a day like (Saturday).

“But you don’t know what’s going to happen. That’s the thing.”

Someone could even go out and shoot 63 like Justin Thomas.

4:12PM

U.S. Opens at Chambers, Erin Hills? Give us Pebble, please

By Art Spander

ERIN, Wis. — This 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills, smack in the middle of somewhere southwest of Milwaukee, has the strong scent of another on a course scraped out of America’s heartland, that one in 1970 at Hazeltine, near Minneapolis.

The responses that year varied from dislike to pure hatred, the latter expressed by the late Dave Hill, a testy pro who would just as soon drop a critic with punch as drop a 40-foot putt. “All it lacks,” he said of Hazeltine, “is 80 acres of corn and a few cows to be a good farm.” And he finished second.

Jack Nicklaus, more diplomatic than Hill, said what bothered him about Hazeltine is Ben Hogan never played there, meaning if the USGA, which runs the Open, is so obsessed with tradition, why are they bringing it to a site with no link to Hogan, Sam Snead or other former greats?

Now, after a remodeling, two U.S. Opens, a PGA Championship and the 2016 Ryder Cup, Hazeltine has some history and a presence. Mark Twain said that politicians, old buildings and prostitutes become respectable with age. To that list, add golf courses.

So maybe there is hope for Erin Hills. Or maybe not. The USGA deserves a small cheer, at least, for expanding the Open, once limited to very old line, private, restricted — and admittedly great — courses such as Merion, The Country Club and Winged Foot.

But bringing in venues such as Pebble Beach, Pinehurst and Bethpage Black, all expensive but available to the public, is different than showing up at a little-known site among barns and silos in America's Dairyland.

To a golfer, names like Pebble, Oakmont, Medinah and Shinnecock Hills, at the end of Long Island, have a certain resonance. As throughout sports do names such as Churchill Downs, the Rose Bowl and Yankee Stadium. Staging the U.S. Open at Erin Hills is akin to holding Wimbledon on a battered tennis court in northeast England, even if the opponents are Federer and Nadal.

This is the second installment of the USGA’s “Guess what we’ve got cooking?” idea. Two years ago, the Open was played at Chambers Bay, another unproven course on Puget Sound near Tacoma. It fell victim to the weather, a lack of rain in frequently rainy Washington State.

Gary Player, who has his own agenda — he designs courses — said Chambers Bay was awful. At least there were some beautiful views, unlike Erin Hills. And at the end, after the grumbling, the one-two finishers were, in order, Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson, two of the best.

That always has been one way to judge the quality of any course, and whether it should be used either for the U.S. Open or the PGA Championship: the leaderboard. The other two majors, the Masters, always at Augusta National, and the British Open, are outside this category.

If you get Spieth, who won two majors in ’15, and Johnson, who took last year’s U.S. Open at venerable Oakmont, then maybe the course will gain acceptance over the years. If not, at least it may have produced one magnificent tournament.

This week at Erin Hills, the leaderboard through two rounds was decent, especially with no Tiger Woods — who may be out forever — or Phil Mickelson in the field.

Rickie Fowler, who has the commercials, might at last get the major. Players such as Brooks Koepka and Paul Casey are winners lingering just outside the big names. They wouldn’t be a surprise with a victory.

What Erin Hills could have used to escape anonymity was a win by Rory McIlroy, Jason Day or Dustin Johnson, each of whom has at one time of late — Johnson at the moment — been No. 1 in the world rankings. “Never heard of the place, but Rory won there” sort of attention.

But Rory and Day missed the cut, and Dustin was right on the line.

Maybe Erin Hills' reputation will be that of the course where Day made two triple bogies on the front nine in the first round and a 23-year-old Open rookie from San Diego, Xander Schauffele, didn’t make a bogey until the second round.

Whatever, it’s still smack in the middle of nowhere, a course as hard to find as it is to play.

1:21PM

A question for Serena, but no questions for Kerber

By Art Spander

NEW YORK — It seemed wrong, a final in women’s tennis without Serena Williams, but at the same time it seemed right. Sport is nothing but change, heroes and heroines raising a trophy or a hand in triumph and then being pushed aside, maybe in a matter of weeks or months — the Warriors' reign was halted all too quickly — or, in Serena’s case, a matter of years.

Now there is a new women’s tennis champion, someone who not that long ago the critics said didn’t have the game or the nerve to get to the top. Angelique Kerber is not only the U.S. Open winner but No. 1 in the rankings.

Kerber left no questions Saturday in the Open final, beating Karolina Pliskova, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, someone who like Kerber few outside the little, provincial world of tennis knew well, if at all, until recently.

Yet their questions of another, Serena, whose defeat in the semifinals by Pliskova on Thursday, and tumble from the top of the rankings on Saturday morning, became front-page news in the New York Times, 24 hours later.

The day the women’s final, for a second straight year, would played without her.

“Serena Williams Will Be 35.” said the headline over a story by tennis correspondent Chris Clarey. “But Will She Be No. 1 Again?”

Yes, Williams is American and held her position for 186 consecutive weeks, and we tend to dwell on what was as much as what is. Still, women’s tennis is in flux, although Kerber suddenly appears to be the top-of-the-heap player who may hold her ranking for a while.

Kerber has done what Serena used to do, what Venus Williams used to do, what Steffi Graf and Chris Evert used to do: she stepped up and dominated. She beat Serena in the Australian Open final, lost to Serena in the Wimbledon final and now beats Pliskova in the U.S. Open final. Three finals and two titles in a calendar year. That’s something we would have expected from Serena, or from Kerber’s mentor and fellow German, Steffi Graf, who persuaded Kerber to be more aggressive.

As perhaps too many women on tour, Kerber played too carefully, keeping the ball in play but rarely forcing the issue. But after she lost to Victoria Azarenka in the third round of last year’s Open, she visited Graf — the last player, male or female, to take the Grand Slam, all four majors in a year, 1988 — in Las Vegas, where Graf lives with her husband, Andre Agassi, and family.

“Kerber used to play too defensively,” Evert told the ESPN television audience, “and she had that pitty-pat serve.”

At age 28, Kerber conquered her faults and her demons. And with experience she then conquered the hard-serving Pliskova, who at 24 finally had her breakthrough.

Pliskova, who never had been beyond the third round of any major, first won the Cincinnati tournament a month ago, beating Kerber in the final, 6-3, 6-1, and then going all the way to this final — if not to the championship.

Kerber said she had dreamed of being No. 1 since she was a child in Bremen. Sometimes even in a sport where the young come up so quickly, and the veterans slip away no less quickly, success is a process that takes a long while.

"It means a lot to me,” said Kerber, still on the Arthur Ashe Stadium court as tears trickled down her face immediately after the match. “I mean, all the dreams came true this year, and I'm just trying to enjoy every moment on court and also off court."

She’ll enjoy it. Serena Williams may enjoy it less so. Will she be No. 1 again? It will be fascinating to find out.

8:19PM

Serena denies she was beaten because she was ‘beat up’

By Art Spander

NEW YORK — She looked weary, bewildered, and even, yes, old, because some two weeks from her 35th birthday, as a tennis player Serena Williams is old, 12 years older than Karolina Pliskova, who on a Thursday night of disbelief — and perhaps transition — stunned tennis and Williams.

A 6-foot-1 Czech with a serve no less impressive — and at times more effective — than Williams', Pliskova overcame her own history of Grand Slam failures, Serena’s reputation and a howling crowd with a 6-2, 7-6 (5) win in a U.S. Open semifinal.

For a second straight year, Williams falls one match short of the Open final — in 2015 she was upset by Roberta Vinci — and also for the first time in months falls out of the No. 1 ranking in women’s tennis, which now goes to Germany's Angelique Kerber, who faces Pliskova in Saturday's final.

Maybe it was because Serena played a three-setter in the quarterfinals Wednesday against Simona Halep and was unable to recover physically.   

Maybe it was because Serena’s game is not what it used to be.

Maybe it’s because Pliskova has learned to conquer the nerves that rattled her until this summer.

Maybe it’s because Serena has a sore leg.

However, she rejected any thought that playing two matches in two days had any effect on her game.

“I definitely was not beat up after my quarterfinal match,” she insisted. “I wasn’t tired from (Wednesday’s) match. I’m a professional player, been playing for over 20 years.

“If I can’t turn around after 24 hours and play again, then I shouldn’t be on tour. So I definitely wasn’t tired from (Wednesday’s) match at all. But yeah, I’ve been having some serious knee problems. Fatigue had nothing to do with it.”

Williams, who rides on her thundering serves, was broken twice in the first set and once in the second. Pliskova, who until this Open had never been past the third round of any major in 17 previous attempts, won the battle of serves, and thus the match.

“Yes,” said Williams. “I thought she served well today, and that definitely was a big thing for her.” 

As over the years it’s been a very big thing for Serena, who in the tiebreak had two double faults. That’s what others do, not Williams. Until this semi.

Pliskova had beaten Venus Williams, Serena’s older sister, in the fourth round of this Open, and so becomes only the fourth player, along with Martina Hingis, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin, to score a victory over both Williamses in the same Slam tournament.

"I don't believe it," said Pliskova moments after the match finished at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

She wasn’t the only one, but anything in tennis, in sports, is believable. Who would have thought Rafa Nadal and Andy Murray would be gone before the semis? Who would have thought the San Francisco Giants would fall apart as they have done?

"I knew I had the chance to beat anyone if I played my game,” said Pliskova.

Which basically is preventing the opponent from returning a serve. It was evident why Pliskova leads the Tour in service aces.

Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, had suggested that the knee injury was the difference. It’s tough to blame defeat on ailments. Long ago Venus Williams, when asked after losing a match if she had been hurt, said, “If you play you’re not hurt. If you’re hurt don’t play.”

Serena, pressed about the knee, said, “I’m not downplaying anything. Karolina played great today. I think had she played any less, I would have had a chance.

“So I think I wasn’t 100 percent, but I also think she played well. She deserved to win today.”

As with almost every full-time tennis player, Williams has had her share of injuries. It’s a fact in a sport where the competitors are traveling around the world and rarely taking days off.

There’s a never-ending circle. You have to be in a tournament for a chance to earn points that will get you into a tournament. And bodies fray.

Nadal pulled out of the French Open and missed Wimbledon because he was injured. Roger Federer’s knee would not allow him to play in this Open. Time catches up, especially as the years mount.

Williams lost to Kerber in the Australian Open final in January and beat her in the Wimbledon final in July. Who knows whether Serena can keep going on year after year? What we do know is she’s not going on in the 2016 U.S. Open.

7:11PM

An official’s call and a rain delay unhinge Andy Murray

By Art Spander

NEW YORK — He was adamant in defeat, trying to handle the questions better than he did Kei Nishikori’s maddening drop shots, a man whose summer of success, a Wimbledon championship, an Olympics championship, unwound in a single afternoon on America’s biggest tennis stage.

Andy Murray was playing elegantly, happily. He had won 26 of 27 matches since mid-June, was in control of his game, the forehands, the backhands, the serves, and no less significantly because of an intensity that can lead to frustration, in control of himself.

Sure, Novak Djokovic might be there at the end of this U.S. Open, Sunday’s final, but Roger Federer hadn’t entered because of an injury and Rafa Nadal was upset in the fourth round. What an opportunity for the 29-year-old Murray, the No. 2 seed, to win the Open a second time, to win a fourth major.

But like that, the whole world seemed to go against him, from the closing of the new roof over 23,000-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium when rain began to fall, to a loud bong on the public address system that had the umpire calling a let, to a moth or butterfly fluttering around before the fifth set to getting broken at the start of the fifth set.

So Nishikori, the No. 6 seed, beaten in the Open final two years ago by Marin Cilic, eliminated Murray, 1-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-1, 7-5 and goes to the semis. Murray, who got so angry at one juncture he slammed his racquet to the court, goes to Glasgow and a Davis Cup match. 

“I was in good position,” said Murray, “up a set and a break and had chances at the beginning of the fourth set as well. I could have won the match for sure.”

But he didn’t, and as we’ve seen so often, no matter what the sport, when the person or the team lets the extraneous stuff — the weather, the noise, the officials’ calls — get to them, get them rattled, they’re in trouble. As was Murray.

After the loudspeaker system acted up in the fourth set — Open officials explained the noise was a computer problem — the chair umpire, Marija Cicak, called a let and halted play. Murray protested.

“Stopped the point,” said Murray, “and I was curious why that was. (Tournament referee) Wayne McKewen told me it happened four times during the match. I only heard it once before, which was on set point in the second set.”

After the discussion in the fourth set, Murray lost seven straight games.

“Yeah,” said Murray, “I lost my serve a couple of times from positions when I was up in the game. I got broken once from 40-love, once from 40-15, and at the end of the match I think I was up 30-15 in the game as well. That was the difference.

“It was obviously different serving under the roof. I started off the match serving pretty well. It (closing the roof) slows the conditions down so it becomes easier to return. You know, he started returning a bit better. I didn’t serve so well, obviously ... Under the roof, he was able to dictate more of the points. He was playing a bit closer to the baseline than me and taking the ball up a little more.”

And using drop shots, which is the tennis equivalent of a baseball bunt, a ball that doesn’t go very far but doesn’t have to when the opponent, whether a third baseman or a tennis player, is all the way back, unable to return the shot.

“Yeah, a couple of them,” said Murray about being hurt by the drop shots. “I didn’t lose all the points. I won a number of them.”

Nishikori had lost seven of eight previous matches against Murray over the last five years, and when he got stormed in the first set, taking only one game, the pattern seemed certain to continue. Then came the rain, the roof and the Murray reaction — along with the Nishikori resilience.

With some 20 minutes to get the roof closed, Nishikori went to the locker room and got advice from his coaches, one of them Michael Chang, the Californian who at age 17 won the 1989 French Open.

“We talked about a lot of things,” said Nishikori, the only Japanese player to get to the finals of a Grand Slam event. “It was definitely my mistake I lost the first set. I was feeling a bit rushed. After the rain delay I changed something.”

He certainly changed the direction of the Open, ousting Murray.

“I have not let anyone down,” Murray insisted about his performance. “I tried my best. I didn’t let anyone down. Certainly not myself.”

He just let himself get distracted by a let call and a rain delay. Not very smart.