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.

U.S. Open: Scores | Live blog: Day 2 | Full coverage

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.

Getty Images

What's in the bag: CareerBuilder winner Rahm

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 10:37 pm

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

Getty Images

Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 9:45 pm

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.

The two-time U.S. Open champ then engaged with some followers to explain his point a little more in depth.

So, yeah ... don't think he's changing his perspective on this topic anytime soon ever.

Getty Images

Randall's Rant: The Euros won't just roll over

By Randall MellJanuary 22, 2018, 9:36 pm

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.

Getty Images

Quail Hollow officials promise players easier conditions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 22, 2018, 9:14 pm

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.