Breezes in the Bluestem Bagpipes in the Air
I dropped my keys back in my pocket and went around to look. (I happen to like bagpipe music, a difficult trait my family plans to do something about as soon as they remember which drawer contains the unsigned commitment papers.) I found a scene worthy of Northern Exposure: A curly-haired man of about 40 in a UPS uniform (summer version), standing by his delivery truck, facing the Oyster Bay yard of the Long Island Railroad, filling the air with the skirl of Scotlands national instrument.
We spoke for a moment about how the world makes bagpipers practice in rail yards (although I distinctly heard applause from mothers and children in a park on the other side of the tracks). I gave him my card; he promised to send me the name of a bagpipe teacher in Florida. (Dont worry; likely Mrs. Barr will intercept the letter.) He packed up and ended his lunch break.
The whimsical episode capped off a U.S. Open pre-tournament of pleasingly out-of-place notions. At Shinnecock Hills, Titleist putter guru Scotty Cameron looked around, fixed his wind-blown hair and observed that it felt like a British Open. Indeed, even on the practice greens, the elevated clubhouse was unable to break the flag-whipping breeze off Peconic Bay, backed as it was by the winds off Long Island Sound. It was steady, it was cool, and it smelled of salt and oysters.
The anticipatory stages of this tournament were a much better sensory experience than the last two U.S. Opens. Besides the oceanic aroma, there was the heady, summery smell of cut hay as you walked through the bluestem and other high grasses. Yes, they are cut down around the greens this year, but they are still here, and in great swaths by the narrow fairways they are still the enemies of wayward shots. One thinks of Jim Furyks wrist and shudders.
From the northeast corner of the clubhouse, behind the ninth green, the view down the slope toward the 18th hole extends through salty haze to the windmill at National Golf Links and the Sound beyond. Players heading for the locker room muttered about crusty greens and good shots that roll off, and if this wind holds up, and nothing could stop it for more than a day, and what a great golf course, but, dang, this is going to be hard. Less trees than in 1995, more open ' but harder, to be sure.
Theres a lot of looking at the sky, at American flags still at half-staff for President Reagan, at their direction and rippling stiffness. As the sailors clips holding the flags ding against the metal poles, players and fans alike think about black numbers and low-ball hitters. The morning blueness on the horizon never amounts to anything, and everyones shoes get dusty. No one can honestly narrow down the list of potential winners to less than ten.
The U.S. Golf Association, typically inscrutable on issues of this kind, is rumored to be delighted. It loves this golf course, and it loves demanding, every-club-in-the-bag, creativity-required golf. So do many fans, not all of them purists.
Some new purists could be born, or converted, this weekend. Standing on the tee at 14, with a downhill drive beginning 443 yards of one of the most stirring par-4 odysseys in the game, it is hard not to want every golf day to be like this one: A three-club gale, a bunker on the far side of the fairway at the bottom, and a ridge of bluestem asserting itself from the right.
As golf spread across the United States from this point, geography and local preference necessarily gave courses regional character. Maidstone is no more The Medalist than Long Island is Florida, and windblown linksland cannot be duplicated where palm trees grow. The fact that golf in the Shinnecock style exists in the British Isles and a few precious spots in coastal North America make it all the more special. Its almost enough to make up for the fact that so few of us get to regularly play this kind of windy, luck-strewn, fast, dry golf. Almost.
In going back to this kind of golf whenever it can ' and the plan is to do so more often ' the USGA is indoctrinating a new generation of fans into that world of experiences just unusual enough to be enticing ' be they bagpipes by the train yard or a 4-iron lofted into the salty breeze.
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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore
Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.
Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.
There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.
Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.
The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.
Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again
Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.
Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.
It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.
Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.
While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.
McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call
Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.
Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.
The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.
McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.
McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.
Fleetwood rallies to defend Abu Dhabi title
The 2018 European Tour season has begun just as the 2017 one ended: with Tommy Fleetwood's name atop the standings.
Facing the most difficult conditions of the week, Fleetwood charged down the stretch to shoot a 7-under 65 in the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, good enough for a two-shot win and a successful title defense.
Abu Dhabi was the start of Fleetwood's resurgence a year ago, the first of two European Tour victories en route to the season-long Race to Dubai title. This time around the Englishman started the final round two shots off the lead but rallied with six birdies over his final nine holes to reclaim the trophy.
Fleetwood was five shots behind countryman Ross Fisher when he made the turn, but he birdied the par-5 10th and then added four birdies in a five-hole stretch from Nos. 12-16. The decisive shot came on the final hole, when his pitch from the left rough nestled within a few feet of the hole for a closing birdie.
Fleetwood's 22-under total left him two shots ahead of Fisher and four shots clear of Rory McIlroy and Matthew Fitzpatrick. After entering the week ranked No. 18, Fleetwood is expected to move to at least No. 12 in the world when the new rankings are published.