Hawk's Nest: Top 5 U.S. Open venues

By John HawkinsJune 10, 2013, 2:02 pm

Some of the best memories during my 14 years at Golf World originated during our coverage of the major championships. Five or six of us would live in a rented house for the week, which required some personal adjustments, especially at the British Open. I slept on some kid’s waterbed for 10 years at the Masters. By the time I’d figure out how to use the coffee machine anywhere, the tournament would be over.

So I’m no genius and I’m definitely not a handyman, but as my longtime colleague, Bob Verdi, once cracked, “Scotland will be a great country when it’s finished.” When you fly a half-dozen writers overseas and put them in someone’s home with no adult supervision, stuff happens. Rental cars get banged up, guys eventually start wearing each other out, but 90 percent of the time, those experiences were an absolute blast.

Having spent about one-third of my career rotting away in hotels, even the big house we had for the 2004 U.S. Open – the one that came without any sheets or towels – was kind of fun. Especially now that it’s in the rear-view mirror.

AS FOR THE reason we gathered on Long Island that week, Shinnecock Hills was a staggering example of how a great venue can be taken to undue extremes when the USGA loses sight of its mission. The same thing happened a year later at Pinehurst, which was the last time a U.S. Open course setup was overseen by Tom Meeks.

My take was that Meeks was a nice guy who got in a little over his head – especially when dealing with pressure from longtime bluecoats and other high-ranking USGA officials. The tournament has been a lot more consistent under Mike Davis, who is now the executive director. Davis was an outstanding junior golfer who seems in touch with the tough-but-fair premise as it relates to the world’s best players.

Hawkins video: Merion Golf Club | Open favorites | Mickelson's rise

In May 2008, Davis was kind enough to let me play three rounds at Torrey Pines a month before it hosted the event. The rough was beyond diabolical – we failed to find my ball after drives at the ninth and 18th settled just a yard or two off the fairway. I’m not going to tell you Davis cut the rough because of those two shots, but it definitely was less penal when the big boys got to town.

Consider that a long-winded introduction to my list of the best U.S. Open venues – some of which were set up well, some of which were not:

1. Shinnecock (pictured above). Having played it for the fifth time last summer, I think it’s the finest course in America, period. Spectacular terrain, a relatively simple but brilliant design – and relentless in terms of making skill requisite. Shinnecock’s tilted greens are susceptible to situations like ’04, when the surfaces received no water and several eventually became unputtable, particularly the par-3 seventh.

“It was absolutely perfect on Wednesday,” Ernie Els chagrined. “Such a shame, how they let it get away.”

2. Oakmont. Looking back, Davis told me he wished he’d trimmed the rough a bit in ’07, when Angel Cabrera beat Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk. Veteran tour pro John Cook had a more fascinating idea, however, saying, “If you turned the entire place into one giant fairway, cut down all the rough and let the ball roll into some crazy places, you’d have the coolest tournament ever.”

You’ve gotta love a thinker. Oakmont was built on a seemingly endless stretch of tilted earth, right at the intersection of Common Sense and Gravity. Its reputation as the home of golf’s slickest greens might have something to do with the USGA playing it safe in 1994, then again in ’07. If you’re looking to reward precision amid the perdition, this is the spot.

3. Pebble Beach. Maybe I’ve ranked it a bit too high, but aesthetics have to count for something, and besides, the small greens make for tough targets even when you’ve driven it nicely. Pebble’s entire back nine is vastly underrated – the postcard holes get all the love. Davis let the 13th green get a little silly in 2010, a mistake he admitted, but it’s not his fault that tournament drowned in boredom.

4. Pinehurst. Its debut in 1999 remains the best U.S. Open I’ve covered: Payne Stewart over Phil Mickelson at the buzzer after Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh faded late. An all-star cast and a spectacular finish is hard to beat – unseasonably cool temperatures and clouds/rain allowed the No. 2 course to remain navigable. The return six years later was a mess by Sunday; neither guy in the final group (Olin Browne, Retief Goosen) failed to break 80.

This is another site where we don’t need a bunch of USGA chefs over the broth. Pinehurst’s domed greens were designed for speeds much slower than are played today. The meaty par 4s and exquisite bunkering are among the many wonderful characteristics, but if you want to turn the place into a bogey farm, you’re missing the point.

5. Bethpage. Both U.S. Opens there (2002, ’09) were basically ruined by rain, which hurt the atmosphere and removed the fangs from the vaunted Black course. Again, this is unbelievable golf terrain, so stacked in vivid contours that all you have to do is grow a little grass on the sides and let the tour pros have at it.

Meeks made mistakes with the tees in ’02, particularly at the 10th, where some guys couldn’t carry it over the fescue in the downpour. Last year’s FedEx Cup playoff event offered a pretty good example of how good Bethpage can be. This place deserves another shot.

IT WAS A weak field and he finished two strokes behind first-time winner Harris English, but there was a lot to like about Phil Mickelson’s body of work at the Fedex St. Jude Classic. For much of the weekend, Lefty struck his irons better than I’ve seen in a long time. He made enough putts to stay in the hunt and drove the ball adequately, all things considered.

More than all that stuff, Mickelson exhibited a level of competitive energy not always prevalent in recent months. You can do worse than to head to a U.S. Open with a bucket full of enthusiasm. Especially when you’ve finished second five times.

I’VE NEVER BEEN much of a weatherman when it comes to forecasting golf tournaments, but this week, I feel like an Irish meteorologist. Total guesswork on a venue that will host its first U.S. Open in 32 years – you’d be better off entering a raffle.

Tiger Woods (10-1): Forget the nine-hole 44 at Memorial. Ancient history. Still the best grinder on earth.

Matt Kuchar (15-1): Great mix of course-management skills and composure. Most likely to hang around deep into Sunday.

Luke Donald (18-1): Hasn’t missed a cut in eight U.S. starts, has two top-fives. Out of the spotlight, might he finally be ready?

Steve Stricker (22-1): Another majorless guy who makes putts and has amassed a nice portfolio. What does that mean this week? Maybe nothing.

Phil Mickelson (24-1): When mentally engaged, he’s still a handful. Short game always travels to the national championship.

Justin Rose (25-1): I expected more at this point in the season, but he’s going to win a major someday. Great iron players will prosper on small greens.

Boo Weekley (25-1): I worry about him standing over a 4-footer with the game on the line, but it almost certainly will be for a birdie.

Lee Westwood (28-1): Recently turned 40, time is running out, but couldn’t we have said the same of Darren Clarke?

Dustin Johnson (30-1): You never know with this guy. Course may not suit him, but T-10 in Memphis doesn’t hurt chances.

Rory McIlroy (35-1): Just haven’t seen it this year. Between the tennis-playing girlfriend and the new clubs, he’s looked like any other 24-year-old.

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DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."

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LPGA lists April date for new LA event

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 8:18 pm

The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.

When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.

The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.

The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.

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Tour's Integrity Program raises gambling questions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 17, 2018, 7:00 pm

The video begins with an eye-opening disclaimer: “Sport betting markets produce revenues of $1 trillion each year.”

For all the seemingly elementary elements of the 15-minute video PGA Tour players have been required to watch as part of the circuit’s newly created Integrity Program, it’s the enormity of the industry – $1 trillion annually – that concerns officials.

There are no glaring examples of how sport betting has impacted golf, no red flags that sent Tour officials into damage control; just a realization that with that kind of money it’s best to be proactive.

“It's important that in that world, you can operate not understanding what's happening week in and week out, or you can assume that all of our players and everybody in our ecosystem understands that that's not an acceptable activity, or you can just be proactive and clarify and educate,” Tour commissioner Jay Monahan explained earlier this month. “That's what we have attempted to do not with just the video, but with all of our communication with our players and will continue to do that.”

But if clarification is the goal, a copy of the training video obtained by GolfChannel.com paints a different picture.

Although the essence of the policy is straightforward – “prohibit players from betting on professional golf” – the primary concern, at least if the training video is any indication, is on match fixing; and warns players to avoid divulging what is considered “inside information.”

“I thought the questions were laughable. They were all like first-grade-level questions,” Chez Reavie said. “I would like to think everyone out here already knows the answer to those questions. But the Tour has to protect themselves.”

Monahan explained that the creation of the integrity policy was not in reaction to a specific incident and every player asked last week at the Sony Open said they had never encountered any type of match fixing.

“No, not at all,” Reavie said. “I have friends who will text me from home after a round, ‘Oh, I bet on you playing so-and-so.’ But I make it clear I don’t want to know. I don’t gamble like that. No one has ever approached me about losing a match.”

It was a common answer, but the majority of the video focuses on how players can avoid being placed in a compromising situation that could lead to match fixing. It should be noted that gamblers can place wagers on head-to-head matchups, provided by betting outlets, during stroke-play rounds of tournaments – not just in match-play competitions.

Part of the training video included questions players must answer to avoid violating the policy. An example of this was how a player should respond when asked, “Hello, buddy! Well played today. I was following your progress. I noticed your partner pulled out of his approach on 18, looked like his back. Is he okay for tomorrow?”

The correct answer from a list of options was, “I don’t know, sorry. I’m sure he will get it looked at if it’s bothering him.”

You get the idea, but for some players the training created more questions.

How, for example, should a player respond when asked how he’s feeling by a fan?

“The part I don’t understand, let’s say a member of your club comes out and watches you on the range hitting balls, he knows you’re struggling, and he bets against you. Somehow, some way that could come back to you, according to what I saw on that video,” said one player who asked not to be identified.

Exactly what constitutes a violation is still unclear for some who took the training, which was even more concerning considering the penalties for a violation of the policy.

The first violation is a warning and a second infraction will require the player to retake the training program, but a third violation is a fine “up to $500,000” or “the amount illegally received from the betting activity.” A sixth violation is a lifetime ban from the Tour.

Players are advised to be mindful of what they post on social media and to “refrain from talking about odds or betting activity.” The latter could be an issue considering how often players discuss betting on other sports.

Just last week at the Sony Open, Kevin Kisner and Justin Thomas had a “friendly” wager on the College Football Playoff National Championship. Kisner, a Georgia fan, lost the wager and had to wear an Alabama football jersey while playing the 17th hole last Thursday.

“If I'd have got the points, he'd have been wearing [the jersey], and I was lobbying for the points the whole week, and he didn't give them to me,” Kisner said. “So I'm still not sure about this bet.”

It’s unclear to some if Kisner’s remark, which was a joke and didn’t have anything to do with golf, would be considered a violation. From a common sense standpoint, Kisner did nothing wrong, but the uncertainty is an issue.

Much like drug testing, which the Tour introduced in 2008, few, if any, think sport betting is an issue in golf; but also like the anti-doping program, there appears to be the danger of an inadvertent and entirely innocent violation.

The Tour is trying to be proactive and the circuit has a trillion reasons to get out in front of what could become an issue, but if the initial reaction to the training video is any indication they may want to try a second take.

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Lexi looks to shine as LPGA season begins next week

By Randall MellJanuary 17, 2018, 6:06 pm

Lexi Thompson may be No. 4 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, but in so many ways she became the new face of the women’s game last year.

That makes her the headliner in a fairly star-studded season opener at the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic next week.

Three of the top four players in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings are scheduled to tee it up on Paradise Island, including world No. 1 Shanshan Feng and co-Rolex Player of the Year So Yeon Ryu.

From the heartache at year’s start with the controversial loss at the ANA Inspiration, through the angst in the middle of the year with her mother’s cancer diagnosis, to the stunning disappointment at year’s end, Thompson emerged as the story of the year because of all she achieved in spite of those ordeals.

Next week’s event will mark the first time Thompson tees it up in an LPGA tournament since her season ended in stunning fashion last November with a missed 2-foot putt that cost her a chance to win the CME Group Tour Championship and the Rolex Player of the Year Award, and become the world No. 1.

She still walked away with the CME Globe’s $1 million jackpot and the Vare Trophy for the season’s low scoring average.

She also walked away sounding determined to show she will bounce back from that last disappointment the same way she bounced back from her gut-wrenching loss at the year’s first major, the ANA, where a four-shot Sunday penalty cost her a chance to win her second major.

“Just going through what I have this whole year, and seeing how strong I am, and how I got through it all and still won two tournaments, got six seconds ... it didn’t stop me,” Thompson said leaving the CME Group Tour Championship. “This won’t either.”

Thompson was named the Golf Writers Association of America’s Player of the Year in a vote of GWAA membership. Ryu and Sung Hyun Park won the tour’s points-based Rolex Player of the Year Award.

With those two victories and six second-place finishes, three of those coming after playoff losses, Thompson was close to fashioning a spectacular year in 2017, to dominating the tour.

The new season opens with Thompson the center of attention again. Consistently one of the tour’s best ball strikers and longest hitters, she enjoyed her best year on tour last season by making dramatic improvements in her wedge play, short game and, most notably, her putting.

She doesn’t have a swing coach. She fashioned a better all-around game on her own, or under the watchful eye of her father, Scott. All the work she put in showed up in her winning the Vare Trophy.

The Pure Silk Bahamas Classic will also feature defending champion Brittany Lincicome, as well as Ariya Jutanugarn, Stacy Lewis, Michelle Wie, Brooke Henderson, I.K. Kim, Danielle Kang and Charley Hull.