Public Golf Supporters Rise Up and Take Your US Opens
Here's a blessing to count: The U.S. Golf Association has chosen two public courses for its national championship.
The 2008 U.S. Open will be played at Torrey Pines Golf Club's South Course in La Jolla, Calif. The 2009 Open will be held again at Bethpage State Park's Black Course in Farmingdale, N.Y., the track that met with good reviews (from everyone but the players) in this year's championship.
It felt right this year, and will again in seven and eight years, that the national championship of the world's most egalitarian sport was played where the great mass of golfers can play. It felt like Election Day when politics were clean, like democracy in action. But this time with sports. I expected Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt to come around the corner with one-day badges, looking on a map for the grandstand by the 17th green.
For the USGA, the choices can't help but move the PR needle in the right direction. Five private clubs founded the USGA in 1894, and ever since, the association has endured allegations of elitism, sometimes justified. The public - some say the toughest public there is, New Yorkers - responded well to the summer golf festival at Bethpage.
With all that good feeling, can we be blamed for wanting more? Of course, not many public courses are U.S. Open quality. But just as an after-work exercise, let's daydream about some public venues across America we'd like to see host U.S. Opens. You pour us a beer.
New York City: Van Cortlandt Park. Yeah, I know, it's impossible. But talk about popular appeal: This is New York public golf central. I'm surprised there aren't hot dog stands on every other tee. And as long as we're going over the top, why not clear Central Park and see how many golf holes Rees Jones could work into it? Leave the Sheep Meadow high for the requisite U.S. Open rough. Note to USGA rules guru Kendra Graham: What's the ruling if my ball comes to rest under the bus stop shelter across 61st Street from the park? And 'Eeyyy, I'm chippin' ovah heah!
Pittsburgh: Oakmont. No, not that one: Oakmont East, the little public track right next to Oakmont Country Club on Hulton Road. For other Oakmont Opens, the East course was used as a parking lot. (Probably will be a again when the Open comes to Oakmont in 2007.) But in its natural life, the East is one of the few courses downtown day workers can reach after work for a quick nine before daylight savings sunsets. The Church Pew bunkers of Nos. 3 and 4 on the 'big course' are visible through the fence along the first fairway, but then you're on your own over hill and dale above the Allegheny River. Guaranteed Open fun: Watching the pros choke down 3-woods to drive the green of the downhill, 300-yard fifth hole.
Chicago: Cog Hill No. 4 is the obvious choice, and unlike the fantasies above, it's the real deal. The Jemsek family gem in Lemont has been host of the PGA Tour's Western Open since 1991. It has the toughness and interest a U.S. Open course needs, and it's no secret that the heirs of the late Joe Jemsek, who was known as the father of public golf in Chicago, would love to have the Open at Cog.
Chicagoans would love it too, just as they did at Medinah in 1990. But the public panache of a Cog Hill Open would work in The City That Works. My advice: Hang out on the back nine and watch hopes rise and fall on some of the toughest finishing holes the pros ever face. Oh, and don't worry, either the Cubs or the White Sox will be in town. That's the way the schedule works.
Portland, Oregon: Pumpkin Ridge. Between the hills on the city's western rim and the coastal mountains are delightful farmlands that boast a number of fine courses, but none better than the pair at the Ridge. USGA competition officials could use either course, or make a hybrid as the folks at La Costa did for their event. The climate is perfect, and the golf has the rustic feel the USGA seems to prize. The 1996 U.S. Amateur and 1997 Women's Open were great dry runs.
Thanks for indulging me in some of the fun I poked here. But think about it: The USGA may have started a laudable trend for the U.S. Open. That's not to say private clubs should be abandoned. But the mix is more reflective of golf in America today.
And since we started thinking about it, don't you feel a lot less wound up?
McIlroy gets back on track
There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:
He is well ahead of schedule.
Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.
“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”
To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”
And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.
After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out.
Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.
“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”
The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.
The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)
But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.
Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.
Everything in his life is lined up.
Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.
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.