USGA delivers supersize groupings

By Randall MellJune 13, 2012, 11:42 pm

SAN FRANCISCO – They may be the most compelling union of stars this side of Marvel’s Avengers.

Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson come together to do battle with The Olympic Club in the 112th U.S. Open beginning Thursday.

If you were casting golf’s Avengers, you would probably make Woods Iron Man, a genius in his business who proves more vulnerable than he first appears. Mickelson has to be Captain America, with his grass-roots appeal. Watson? It’s got to be Thor. Watson, after all, wields the most powerful hammer in golf.

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“If I was a golf fan, I would want to watch that group,” U.S. Open defending champion Rory McIlroy said.

Woods, Mickelson and Watson aren’t the only dynamic grouping arranged by the U.S. Golf Association this week.

Here’s the lowdown on this week’s best groupings with their tee times in Eastern Times:

The Avengers: Woods, Mickelson and Watson – Thursday, 10:33 a.m./Friday, 4:18 p.m.

The last time Mickelson teed it up with Woods, he shot 64 and won the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in February, with Woods stumbling home with a final-round 75.

These two have been paired together 30 times in PGA Tour events and sport 13-13-4 records trying to best each other. Momentum is Mickelson’s, though. Since teaming in the spring of ’07 with Butch Harmon, Woods’ former swing coach, Mickelson has enjoyed the upper hand in pairings with Woods. He is 8-3-1 against Woods since then. Mickelson has topped Woods five of the last seven times they’ve been paired. Harmon acknowledges he shared some of Woods’ psychological tactics with Mickelson.

“Yeah, we’ve had a lot of discussion about that, but we’ll just keep that where it is,” Harmon said.

In majors, Woods sports a 4-2-2 advantage in pairings with Mickelson. Woods also has gone on to win three of the majors in which he was paired with Mickelson. Lefty has never won a major where he was paired with Woods at some point in the championship.

Watson doesn’t have the same major championship experience playing in pairings like these, but he won the Masters in April, the last major championship staged. Watson also likes the spotlight and big stages and chances to show off his shot-making gifts. He won’t be intimidated.

Her Majesty’s Not-So Secret Service: Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood – Thursday, 4:29 p.m./Friday, 10:44 a.m.

The top three players in the world rankings will see if they can make it three consecutive U.S. Open titles for Great Britain.

“I’m not sure the queen will be watching, but who knows?” Donald said.

As the U.S. Open’s defending champion, McIlroy, 23, owns what Donald and Westwood desperately want. No, not their own bobblehead – which San Francisco Giants fans received when McIlroy threw out the first pitch Tuesday at AT&T Park; Donald and Westwood want a major championship.

At No. 1 in the world rankings, Donald’s lofty status won’t be fully embraced until he wins a major. A U.S. Open victory at age 34 would legitimize his place atop the game and bring him increased respect.

Donald is 0 for 35 in majors with six top-10 finishes. His best finish is a tie for third at the ’05 Masters and a tie for third at the ’06 PGA Championship. He has no top-10s in eight U.S. Open appearances.

Westwood, 39, is 0 for 56 in majors, but he has endured a lot of close calls. The world No. 3 has seven second- or third-place finishes in majors over the last four years. He tied for third in last year’s U.S. Open at Congressional.

“Majors are the only thing missing I haven’t won,” Westwood said.

Heartthrob Trio: Rickie Fowler, Ryo Ishikawa and Dustin Johnson – Thursday, 4:58 p.m./Friday, 11:43 a.m.

None has won a major, but they’ve won a lot of hearts with their games and looks.

Johnson, 27, is coming off a victory last weekend at the FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis. Fowler, 23, won the Wells Fargo Championship last month. Ishikawa, 20, has won nine times in his young career on the Japanese PGA Tour, but he has yet to make a mark in the United States.

Putter Envy: Adam Scott, Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson – Thursday, 11:32 a.m./Friday, 4:47 p.m.

If these guys finish 1-2-3 at The Olympic Club, you can probably kiss the long putter and belly putter goodbye.

All three of these players have performed impressively with the longer flatsticks. With the U.S. Golf Association studying the fairness of being able to anchor a putter to the body, this grouping almost feels like a grand experiment.

Scott battled out of a slump with the help of a long putter. Bradley won a major (PGA Championship) with a belly putter. Simpson made a run at PGA Tour Player of the Year with his belly putter.

South Korean Three Step: Y.E. Yang, K.J. Choi and K.T. Kim – Thursday, 11:28 a.m./Friday, 5:13 p.m.

This trio of gifted South Koreans will be pushing each other to give their native homeland its first U.S. Open title.

Yang broke through to win his country its first major in men’s golf in dramatic fashion knocking off Tiger Woods in the ’09 PGA Championship. Choi has won more than any other South Korean on the PGA Tour with eight titles and is the highest ranked South Korean in the world (No. 31). Kim is the second highest ranked player in the world from his country and played for the Internationals in the Presidents Cup last year.

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.