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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

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.

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