First-timers in prime position for major glory

By Randall MellJune 17, 2017, 1:31 am

ERIN, Wis. – The mystery’s opening up to us.

With Erin Hills hosting a U.S. Open for the first time, we wondered what kind of player this newcomer to golf’s major championship stage would favor.

Going into the weekend, we know with certainty now.

Erin Hills favors a player who has never won a major championship.

That’s a wonderful thing for Paul Casey (71), Brian Harman (70), Brooks Koepka (70) and Tommy Fleetwood (70).

At 7-under overall, they shared the lead at Friday’s end.

None of them has won a major.

It’s also a wonderful thing for Rickie Fowler (73), J.B. Holmes (69) and Jamie Lovemark (69).

They’re each one shot back.

None of them has won a major, either.

It keeps going like this.

Nobody among the top 18 heading into the weekend has won a major.

Yes, it’s a bunched leaderboard, and anything still seems possible with 18 players within three shots of the lead and 23 within four shots, but that’s your storyline halfway through the 117th U.S. Open.

It’s head scratching how bereft this leaderboard is of players who have proven they know how to win a major.

Sergio Garcia (71) and Martin Kaymer (69) are the major championship winners highest on the leaderboard. They are tied for 19th.

While four shots back doesn’t seem like much, it’s more than you think in a U.S. Open, especially with so many players in front of Garcia and Kaymer. 

Nine of the last 10 U.S. Open winners were first, second or third through 36 holes.

Nineteen of the last 20 winners were within two shots of the lead through 36 holes.

It’s looking like Erin Hills wants to be the Robin Hood of major championship golf, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor.

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Apparently, this golf course doesn’t care much for those guys rich in majors and/or world ranking points. World No. 1 Dustin Johnson, No. 2 Rory McIlroy and No. 3 Jason Day missed the cut. That’s the first time the top three players in the world have all missed the cut in a major since the world rankings were introduced in 1986.

Eight of the top 12 players in the world missed the cut.

McIlroy left shaking his head.

He loved Erin Hills, a long golf course with the widest fairways in U.S. Open memory, a setup that seemed perfect for one of the game’s best drivers.

“The golf course is great,” McIlroy said. “It lets you be aggressive. You can get on runs where you can make birdies. Not your typical U.S. Open setup. But I'm a big fan. I think it's going to produce a really good winner at the end of the week.”

It’s strange how this golf course closed its doors to so many of the best players in the world and opened its doors to so many unproven on stages this large.

Check out Cameron Champ.

The big-hitting 22-year-old amateur from Texas A&M shot 69 Friday to move into a tie for eighth, just two shots off the lead. This is the first U.S. Open he has ever played in, the first major, too.

“This is kind of the first time I’ve been in the spotlight,” Champ said.

Same with Xander Schauffele (73), who is playing in his first U.S. Open. The 23-year-old Tour player is also two shots off the lead.

“It's funny,” Schauffele said. “I'll sign some autographs and kids will be like, `Dad, who is that?’”

Harman, a two-time PGA Tour winner, is playing in just his third U.S. Open, but he is still an unlikely frontrunner. He missed the cut in his first two U.S. Opens. He’s a short hitter excelling on a course that measured 7,839 yards on Friday, the longest layout in U.S. Open history.

“If you hit good shots, you have a chance for birdies here,” Harman said.

With all the controversy that complicated the last two U.S. Opens, there’s a fairness to the setup at Erin Hills that’s impressing the field through 36 holes. The lack of wind they usually get here helped immensely with that on Friday.

“The big number is there on every hole, and that's what gets your attention,” said Wisconsin’s Steve Stricker (72), who’s tied for 55th. “But they do give you plenty of area to hit it off the tee. There is ample room to hit it, so it's really fair.”

When pros say that it’s “fair” at a major, it usually means it’s a little too easy, but the allure of Erin Hills is how it can look so easy and still be penal.

Yes, 42 players are cumulatively under par, the most through two rounds in U.S. Open history. But world No. 1 Johnson, No. 2 McIlroy and No. 3 Day all struggled unexpectedly. Johnson shot a 75, McIlroy a 78 and Day a 79 on the first day.

“I said yesterday, this has been my best preparation going into a major, I felt like, in my career,” Day said.

Fowler made it look easy Thursday, shooting 65 with his 7-under total equaling the lowest 18-hole score in relation to par in U.S. Open history.

We saw Hideki Matsuyama and Chez Reavie equal that with 65s on Friday. Matsuyama missed a 12-foot birdie at the last for a record-setting score.

We saw Adam Hadwin equal a U.S. Open record, making six birdies in a row on Thursday.

And we saw Casey play what may be the round of the tournament because of the way it ran the gamut. His play Friday captured how easy and how penal Erin Hills can be. Casey grabbed his share of the lead with a 71 that included a triple-bogey 8 at the 14th hole.

“Not every day you enjoy a round of golf with an 8 on the card, but I'm a pretty happy man,” Casey said.

There are a lot of players without majors happy the U.S. Open is being played at a first-time venue.

Day: Woods feeling good, hitting it long

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 22, 2017, 9:33 pm

Jason Day says Tiger Woods told him he feels better than he has in three years, which is good news for Woods a week ahead of his return to the PGA Tour at the Hero World Challenge.

Day, a fellow Nike endorser, was asked about Woods during his news conference at the Emirates Australian Open on Wednesday. "I did talk to him," Day said, per a report in the Sydney Morning Herald,"and he did say it's the best he's ever felt in three years'" Day said.

"He doesn't wake up with pain anymore, which is great. I said to him, 'Look, it's great to be one of the best players ever to live, but health is one thing that we all take for granted and if you can't live a happy, healthy life, then that's difficult.'"

The Hero World Challenge will be played Nov. 30-Dec. 3 in the Bahamas and broadcast on Golf Channel and NBC.

Day, who has had his own health issues, said he could empathize with Woods.

"I totally understand where he's coming from, because sometimes I wake up in the morning and it takes me 10 minutes to get out of bed, and for him to be in pain for three years is very frustrating."

Woods has not played since February after undergoing surgery following a recurrence of back problems.

"From what I see on Instagram and what he's been telling me, he says he's ready and I'm hoping that he is, because from what I hear, he's hitting it very long," Day said.

"And if he's hitting it long and straight, then that's going to be tough for us because it is Tiger Woods. He's always been a clutch putter and in amongst the best and it will be interesting to see.

"There's no pressure. I think it's a 17- or 18-man field, there's no cut, he's playing at a tournament where last year I think he had the most birdies at."

Move over Lydia, a new Ko is coming to LPGA

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 5:11 pm

Another gifted young South Korean will be joining the LPGA ranks next year.

Jin Young Ko, the Korean LPGA Tour star, informed the American-based LPGA on Sunday night that she will be taking up membership next year. Ko earned the right by winning the LPGA’s KEB Hana Bank Championship as a nonmember in South Korea in October.

Ko, 22, no relation to Lydia Ko, first burst on to the international spotlight with her run into contention at the Ricoh Women’s British Open at Turnberry two years ago. She led there through 54 holes, with Inbee Park overtaking her in the final round to win.

With 10 KLPGA Tour titles, three in each of the last two seasons, Ko has risen to No. 19 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings.

Ko told Sunday afternoon that she was struggling over the decision, with a Monday deadline looming.

“It’s a difficult decision to leave home,” Ko said after the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, when she was still undecided. “The travelling far away, on my own, the loneliness, that’s what is difficult.”

Ko will be the favorite to win the LPGA’s Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year Award next year. South Koreans have won that award the last three years. Sung Hyun Park won it this year, In Gee Chun last year and Sei Young Kim in 2015. South Korean-born players have won the last four, with New Zealand’s Lydia Ko winning it in 2014. Ko was born in South Korea and moved to New Zealand when she was 6.

Ko released this statement through the LPGA on Wednesday: 

"It has been my dream since I was young to play on the LPGA Tour and I look forward to testing myself against the best players on a worldwide stage. I know it is going to be tough but making a first win as an LPGA member and winning the Rolex Rookie of the Year award would be two of the biggest goals I would like to achieve next year."

Piller pregnant, no timetable for LPGA return

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:22 pm

Gerina Piller, the American Olympian golfer and three-time Solheim Cup veteran, is pregnant and will not be rejoining the LPGA when the 2018 season opens, the New York Times reported following the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller, 32, who is married to PGA Tour pro Martin Piller, is due with the couple’s first child in May, Golf Channel’s Jerry Foltz reported.

Piller declined an interview request when sought comment going into the CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller told the New York Times she has no timetable for her return but that she isn’t done with competitive golf.

“I’m not just giving everything up,” Piller said.

As parity reigns, LPGA searching for a superstar

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:00 pm

Apologies to the LPGA’s golden eras, but women’s golf has never been deeper.

With the game going global, with the unrelenting wave of Asian talent continuing to slam the tour’s shores, with Thailand and China promising to add to what South Korea is delivering, it’s more difficult than ever to win.

That’s a beautiful and perplexing thing for the women’s game.

That’s because it is more difficult than ever to dominate.

And that’s a magic word in golf.

There is no more powerful elixir in the sport.

Domination gets you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, on ESPN SportsCenter, maybe even on NBC Nightly News if the “D” in domination is dynamic enough.

The women’s best chance of moving their sport to another stratosphere is riding the back of a superstar.

Or maybe a pair of superstar rivals.

Photos: 2017 LPGA winners gallery

A constellation of stars may be great for the devoted regular supporters of the women’s game, but it will take a charismatic superstar to make casual fans care.

The LPGA needs a Serena Williams.

Or the reincarnation of Babe Zaharias.

For those of us who regularly follow the LPGA, this constellation of stars makes for compelling stories, a variety of scripting to feature.

The reality, however, is that it takes one colossal story told over and over again to burst out of a sports niche.

The late, great CBS sports director Frank Chirkinian knew what he had sitting in a TV production truck the first time he saw one of his cameras bring a certain young star into focus at the Masters.

It’s this player coming up over the brow of the hill at the 15th hole to play his second shot,” Chirkinian once told me over lunch at a golf course he owned in South Florida.  “He studies his shot, then flips his cigarette, hitches up his trousers and takes this mighty swipe and knocks the shot on the green. It was my first experience with Arnold Palmer, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, who is this guy?’

“The thing about golf, more than any other sport, it’s always looking for a star. It’s the only sport where people will root against the underdog. They don’t want the stars to lose. They’re OK with some unknown rising up to be the story on Thursday or Friday, but they always want to see the stars win.”

And they go gaga when it’s one star so radiant that he or she dominates attention.

“It didn’t matter if Arnold was leading, or where he was, you had to show him,” Chirkinian said. “You never knew when he might do something spectacular.”

The LPGA is in a healthy place again, with a big upside globally, with so much emerging talent sharing the spotlight.

Take Sunday at the CME Group Tour Championship.

The back nine started with Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie making the turn tied for the lead. There is no more powerful pairing to sell in the women’s game today, but there would be no duel. It would have been too far off script as the final chapter to this season.

Parity was the story this year.

Sunday in Naples started with 18 players within two shots of the lead.

Entering that back nine, almost a dozen players were in the mix, including Ariya Jutanugarn.

The day ended with Jutanugarn beating Thompson with a dramatic birdie-birdie finish after Thompson stunned viewers missing a 2-foot putt for par at the last.

The day encapsulated the expanding LPGA universe.

“I’ve never seen such crazy, brilliant golf from these ladies,” said Gary Gilchrist, who coaches Jutanugarn, Lydia Ko and Rolex world No. 1 Shanshan Feng. “It was unbelievable out there. It was just like birdie after birdie after birdie, and the scoreboard went up and down. And that’s why it’s so hard to be No. 1 on this tour. There’s not one person who can peak. It’s all of them at a phenomenal level of golf.”

If Thompson had made that last 2-footer and gone on to win the CME, she would have become the sixth different world No. 1 this year. Before this year, there had never been more than three different No. 1s in a single LPGA season.

Parity was the theme from the year’s start.

There were 15 different winners to open the season, something that hadn’t happened in 26 years. There were five different major championship winners.

This year’s Rolex Player of the Year Award was presented Sunday to So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park. It’s the first time the award has been shared since its inception in 1966.

Thompson won twice this year, with six second-place finishes, with three of those playoff losses, one of them in a major championship. She was close to putting together a spectacular year. She was close to dominating and maybe becoming the tour’s one true rock star.

Ultimately, Thompson showed us how hard that is to do now.

She’s in a constellation we’re all watching, to see if maybe one star breaks out, somebody able to take the game into living rooms it has never been, to a level of popularity it’s never been.

The game won’t get there with another golden era. It will get there with a golden player.