Punch Shot: Who will win the 117th U.S. Open?

By Golf Channel DigitalJune 18, 2017, 1:36 am

ERIN, Wis. - In advance of the final round of the 117th U.S. Open at Erin Hills, GolfChannel.com writers weigh in on some pressing questions including who they think will take home the hardware Sunday evening.

Have the low scores damaged this U.S. Open?

HOGGARD: If 12 over par was leading the U.S. Open and players had spent the last three days searching for golf balls in the deep fescue rough and signing for bogeys, the blowback would be deafening and the players would be demanding answers. After the last two U.S. Opens, the USGA needed to avoid any miscues at all costs, and if record scoring is the result then so be it.

LAVNER: Not at all. There has been a lot of social-media chatter that this Open has devolved into a regular PGA Tour event, but this is the course that was presented. Having covered the 2011 U.S. Amateur here, Erin Hills is an absolute beast when it’s firm and fast. Unfortunately, heavy rain earlier this week made the course play much softer than the USGA could have ever hoped. No asterisk required here.

MELL: Not yet. We’ve got a final round to play, and a spectacular finish could completely change the way we remember this championship. Yeah, all the record scores already posted here don’t help the U.S. Open’s already black-and-blue reputation, but an unforgettable final act, with stiffening winds giving this course its proper defense, could be more than salve for the wounds.

GRAY: No. As multiple players have pointed out, the wide spread of scores is a testament to the legitimacy of Erin Hills as a major layout. Good shots get rewarded, while bad shots get punished. It’s no cake walk out there – if it was, the top three players in the world would still be around. And yes, it’s different from the “typical” U.S. Open experience, but Mike Davis and Co. have a decade’s worth of traditional setups coming our way. Embrace the change while we have it.


Player outside top 5 who will make a charge?

HOGGARD: Drawing inspiration from his U.S. Ryder Cup team uniform he donned for Saturday’s round, Patrick Reed went around Erin Hills in 65 strokes to move within four strokes of the lead. It will likely take something similar to that on Sunday for Reed to pull off the comeback, but if anyone can do it, Reed's the guy.

LAVNER: Patrick Reed. Coming off a 65, playing the tournament that he covets most, Captain America should have plenty of good vibes entering the final round. That he is the pursuer, not the frontrunner, will relieve some of the final-round pressure for a guy who surprisingly hasn’t been a factor in many majors.

MELL: Patrick Reed. Now that he may finally have figured out how to get his Captain America mojo going in a major, he looks dangerous. He looks like that Ryder Cup star we’ve been waiting to take over a major.

GRAY: Russell Henley. He might be overshadowed in his final-round pairing by Captain America Patrick Reed, but he has the potential to go low and get into the thick of contention even though he’s four behind Harman. Henley won his first start as a PGA Tour member at the 2013 Sony, slayed Rory McIlroy among others in a playoff three years ago at Honda and rallied just two months ago to win the Shell Houston Open. He’s got the game, and if the putter gets hot – as it often does – he can make up ground in a hurry.


Winning score and champion?

HOGGARD: Brooks Koepka. Even with winds that are forecast to reach 15 mph, there’s little chance the teeth will return to Erin Hills in time for the final round. With five players already double digits under par, there will be no retreating – Brooks Koepka wins at 15 under par.

LAVNER: Brooks Koepka, at 13 under. Harman doesn’t have a top-25 in a major, let alone experience as the leader, so it’s easy to see him fading. It’ll be difficult for Thomas to back up a record round. And Fleetwood had to sleep on that 18th-hole mistake. Koepka often acts like he’s impervious to stress, and that attitude will be put to the test on Sunday with the wind finally expected to blow. I think he gets it done.

MELL: 14 under. Rickie Fowler. Overnight rains keep Erin Hills softer than the USGA would like, but the winds are projected to stiffen on Sunday. It’s Fowler’s time. He’s still young, but he’s more proven than any player sitting in front of him. His little rally on the back nine Saturday sets him up to finish off what he started on Thursday.

GRAY: I still feel like this is Koepka’s to win, and I think he’ll get it done at 14 under. The wind is expected to blow for the final round, which could present new challenges for the players, but Koepka’s length off the tee remains a strength as long as he can keep the ball out of the fescue. His major record has been building to a breakthrough, and by night’s end he’ll have his arms around his first major title.

Photo by Enrique Berardi/LAAC

Top-ranked amateur Niemann one back at LAAC in Chile

By Nick MentaJanuary 21, 2018, 8:44 pm

Argentina’s Jaime Lopez Rivarola leads the Latin America Amateur Championship at 5 under par following a round of 3-under 68 Saturday in Chile.

The former Georgia Bulldog is now 36 holes from what would be a return trip to Augusta National but his first Masters.

"The truth is that I crossed off on my bucket list playing Augusta [National], because I happened to play there," Rivarola said. "I've played every year with my university. But playing in the Masters is a completely different thing. I have been to the Masters, and I've watched the players play during the practice rounds. But [competing would be] a completely different thing."

He is followed on the leaderboard by the three players who competed in the playoff that decided last year’s LAAC in Panama: Joaquin Niemann (-4), Toto Gana (-4), and Alvaro Ortiz (-3).


Click here for full-field scores from the Latin America Amateur Championship


Chile’s Niemann is the top-ranked amateur in the world who currently holds conditional status on the Web.com Tour and is poised to begin his career as a professional, unless of course he takes the title this week. After a disappointing 74 in Round 1, Niemann was 10 shots better in Round 2, rocketing up the leaderboard with a 7-under 64.

“Today, I had a completely different mentality, and that's usually what happens in my case," Niemann said. "When I shoot a bad round, the following day I have extra motivation. I realize and I feel that I have to play my best golf. The key to being a good golfer is to find those thoughts and to transfer them into good golf."

Niemann’s fellow Chilean and best friend Gana is the defending champion who missed the cut at the Masters last year and is now a freshman at Lynn University. His second-round 70 was a roller coaster, complete with six birdies, three eagles and a double.

Mexico’s Ortiz, the brother of three-time Web.com Tour winner Carlos, was 6 under for the week before three back-nine bogeys dropped him off the pace.

Two past champions, Matias Dominguez and Paul Chaplet, sit 5 over and 7 over, respectively.

The winner of the Latin America Amateur Championship earns an invite to this year’s Masters. He is also exempt into the The Amateur Championship, the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Open sectional qualifying, and Open Championship final qualifying.

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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

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.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


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.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

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.


Full-field scores from the Singapore Open


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.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

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.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


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.