Gone But Not Forgotten
For the second time in his celebrated career, Payne Stewart captured the National Open in 1999 at Pinehurst No. 2 in Pinehurst, North Carolina. Tragically, he perished in a plane crash just four months later.
In the eight months since his passing, tales have been told and memories have been shared. On Wednesday, one last tribute was showcased before the trophy is to be officially handed over to another man.
Some 40 players, including Byron Nelson, Tom Lehman, Davis Love III, Chris Perry, Phil Mickelson, Jose Maria Olazabal and Sergio Garcia gathered with friends and family at 7:00am PT on a captivatingly poetic oceanfront green to pay homage to the late Payne Stewart.
USGA President Trey Holland spoke first, and then stood aside for Stewart's long-time friend Paul Azinger.
Choking back tears, Azinger said: 'I challenge you not to forget Payne Stewart, not just Payne the golfer, but Payne the person.'
Tracey Stewart, Payne's widow, then followed Azinger. She spoke on the difficulties of coping without her late husband, as well as delivering a message of hope.
After Tracey spoke, the song 'With Hope' was played. Then, 21 players approached 21 tees lined along the fairway facing the Pacific Ocean. On Holland's command, they hit the balls simultaneously into the ocean.
A second wave of players then repeated the 21-shot salute. The silence was punctured by the statement: 'We love you, Payne!'
For the first time since an auto accident sidelined Ben Hogan in 1949, an Open champion will not defend his title. Stewart, who loved Pebble Beach dearly, certainly would have been one of the favorites this week. As it is, that role will be divided among several others.
Tiger Woods heads the list, if for only the fact that he won the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in February.
There's David Duval, who earned his best finish of the season last week. Duval lost to Dennis Paulson in a playoff at the Buick Classic.
With new vision and a new putter, Vijay Singh could add the Open to his 2000 Masters title. Singh ditched his 3-foot model for the Paul Azinger-style 45'-putter. He also underwent laser eye surgery two weeks ago.
'My putting hasn't changed, but I anchor it into my belly,' Singh said. 'To me, it doesn't feel like a long putter. I've got a normal grip and I'm standing up exactly the same way. It's just the extension that makes the difference.'
As for his corrected eye sight, Singh said: 'Each week it gets better. I didn't see things very well last week, but it's getting to where I can see everything right now.'
Of course, there are the usual U.S. Open suspects to keep an eye out for - Two-time champion Ernie Els, fellow multiple winner Lee Janzen, Lehman, who has four top-5's in the last five years, 1999 runner-up Mickelson, 1996 runner-up Love III and 1994 runner-up Colin Montgomerie.
Statistics show Monty's success is dependent upon his ability to drive the ball into the fairway. On three occasions, the Scotsman has finished the tournament in the top-three in driving accuracy. Each time he's finished the tournament in the top-three.
'I've happened to hit more fairways than anyone else. And that's a good start,' said Montgomerie. 'I feel if I can hit the fairways, then I can hit the greens and then you have a birdie putt. If you don't hit the fairways, you aren't having many birdie putts.'
Montgomerie isn't the only European with a chance to win this week. Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke both have victories over Tiger Woods under their belts this season. However, one European who won't be adding this major championship to his resume is Paul Lawrie. The reigning British Open champion withdrew earlier in the week due to a groin injury. Don Pooley replaced him.
Lawrie joins Steve Elkington on the inactive list this week. Elk withdrew Wednesday because of a sinus and ear infection which kept him from flying. South African Rory Sabbatini replaced the Australian.
While it's easy to be transfixed on the odds-on favorites, you can't overlook players like Nick Price or 5-time AT&T champion Mark O'Meara. Price is an excellent wind player and O'Meara's five wins at Pebble Beach speak for themselves.
Thursday at 6:30am PT the group of Mark Brooks, Brent Geiberger and Bob May will commence the 2000 U.S. Open. Three days later, someone's name will be engraved on the trophy. That will officially end Payne Stewart's reign as U.S. Open champion. And while he won't be there in body to acknowledge or congratulate the 2000 champion, he'll be there in spirit and in mind. As he has and will always be for so many of those associated with the game of golf.
NEWS, NOTES AND NUMBERS
*This year's purse is $4,500,000. The winner will receive $800,000.
*The 2nd hole has been changed from a par-5 to a 484-yard par-4. The overall par for the course is 71.
*At 60-years-old, Jack Nicklaus will be playing in his 44th consecutive U.S. Open championship, dating back to his first in 1957 at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio as an amateur.
*The Open winner will receive an Open exemption for the next ten years, invitations to the Masters Tournament and the PGA Championship for the next five years, invitations to the British Open and THE PLAYERS Championship for the next ten years and exempt status on the PGA TOUR for the next five years.
What's in the bag: CareerBuilder winner Rahm
Jon Rahm defeated Andrew Landry in a playoff to earn his second PGA Tour title at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Here's what's in his bag:
Driver: TaylorMade M4 (9.5 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft
Fairway wood: TaylorMade M3 (19 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft
Irons: TaylorMade P790 (3), P750 (4-PW), with Project X 6.5 shafts
Wedges: TaylorMade Milled Grind (52, 56 degrees), Milled Grind Hi-Toe (60 degrees), with Project X 6.5 shafts
Putter: TaylorMade Spider Tour Red
Ball: TaylorMade TP5x
Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff
Curtis Strange knows a thing or two about winning golf tournaments, and based on his reaction to the CareerBuilder Challenge playoff on Sunday, it’s safe to say he did things a little differently while picking up 17 PGA Tour victories in his Hall-of-Fame career.
While Jon Rahm and Andrew Landry were “battling” through four extra holes, Strange, 62, tweeted his issues with the duo’s constant chit-chat and friendly banter down the stretch at La Quinta Country Club, where Rahm eventually came out on top.
Watching Andrew Landry and Jon Rahm in playoff. Walking off tee talking to each other. Are you kidding me ? Talking at all. ?— Curtis Strange (@golf_strange) January 22, 2018
The two-time U.S. Open champ then engaged with some followers to explain his point a little more in depth.
0 words— Curtis Strange (@golf_strange) January 22, 2018
The issue is I don’t want to make you a bit relaxed or comfortable. High pressure, good.— Curtis Strange (@golf_strange) January 22, 2018
Did you watch the end of the NFL games yesterday ? Enough said.— Curtis Strange (@golf_strange) January 22, 2018
I didn’t say you couldn’t be friends and competitive. But in a playoff, 1 tiny mistake and you lose, and that devastated me. Friends before and after, competitors during play.— Curtis Strange (@golf_strange) January 22, 2018
Did you win ? It’s all about surviving the competition to test yourself.— Curtis Strange (@golf_strange) January 22, 2018
So, yeah ... don't think he's changing his perspective on this topic anytime soon ever.
Randall's Rant: The Euros won't just roll over
The Ryder Cup may not be the King Kong of golf events yet, but you can hear the biennial international team event thumping its chest a full eight months out.
As anticipation for this year’s big events goes, there is more buzz about Europe’s bid to hold off a rejuvenated American effort in Paris in September than there is about the Masters coming up in April.
Thank Europe’s phenomenal success last weekend for that.
And Rory McIlroy’s impassioned remarks in Abu Dhabi.
And the provocative bulletin board material a certain Sports Illustrated writer provided the Europeans a couple months ago, with a stinging assault on the Euro chances that read like an obituary.
McIlroy was asked in a news conference before his 2018 debut last week what he was most excited about this year.
The Ryder Cup topped his list.
Though McIlroy will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National come April, he talked more about the Ryder Cup than he did any of the game’s major championships.
When asked a follow-up about the American team’s resurgence after a task-force overhaul and the injection of young, new star power, McIlroy nearly started breaking down the matchup. He talked about the young Americans and how good they are.
“Yeah, the Americans have been, obviously, very buoyant about their chances and whatever, but it’s never as easy as that. ... The Ryder Cup’s always close,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ll have a great team, and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”
McIlroy may have been talking about Alan Shipnuck’s bold prediction after the American Presidents Cup rout last fall.
Or similar assertions from TV analysts.
“The Ryder Cup is dead – you just don’t know it yet,” Shipnuck wrote. “One of the greatest events in sport is on the verge of irrelevancy. The young, talented, hungry golfers from the United States, benefitting from the cohesive leadership of the Task Force era, are going to roll to victory in 2018 in Paris.”
European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn won’t find words that will motivate the Euros more than that as he watches his prospective players jockey to make the team.
And, boy, did they jockey last weekend.
The Euros dominated across the planet, not that they did it with the Ryder Cup as some rallying cry, because they didn’t. But it was a heck of an encouraging start to the year for Bjorn to witness.
Spain’s Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour, England’s Tommy Fleetwood started the week at Abu Dhabi paired with American and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and won the European Tour event, and Spain’s Sergio Garcia won the Singapore Open in a rout on the Asian Tour.
And McIlroy looked close to being in midseason form, tying for third in his first start in three months.
Yes, it’s only January, and the Ryder Cup is still a long way off, with so much still to unfold, but you got an early sense from McIlroy how much defending European turf will mean to him and the Euros in Paris in September.
The Masters is great theater, the U.S. Open a rigorous test, The Open and the PGA Championship historically important, too, but the Ryder Cup touches a nerve none of those do.
The Ryder Cup stokes more fervor, provokes more passion and incites more vitriol than any other event in golf.
More bulletin board material, too.
Yeah, it’s a long way off, but you can already hear the Ryder Cup’s King Kong like footsteps in its distant approach. Watching how the American and European teams come together will be an ongoing drama through spring and summer.
Quail Hollow officials promise players easier conditions
Quail Hollow Club - a staple on the PGA Tour since 2003 - debuted as a longer, tougher version of itself at last year’s PGA Championship, receiving mixed reviews from players.
The course played to a lengthened 7,600 yards at last year’s PGA and a 73.46 stroke average, the toughest course in relation to par on Tour in 2017. As a result, it left some players less than excited to return to the Charlotte, N.C.-area layout later this spring for the Wells Fargo Championship.
It’s that lack of enthusiasm that led officials at Quail Hollow to send a video to players saying, essentially, that the course players have lauded for years will be back in May.
The video, which includes Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris and runs nearly five minutes, begins with an explanation of how the first hole, which played as a 524-yard par 4 at the PGA, will play much shorter at the Wells Fargo Championship.
“I had a number of my friends who were playing in the tournament tell me that tee was better suited as a lemonade stand,” Harris joked of the new tee box on the fourth hole. “I doubt we’ll ever see that tee used again in competition.”
Harris also explained that the greens, which became too fast for some, will be “softer” for this year’s Wells Fargo Championship.