U.S. Open as wide open as they come

By Rex HoggardJune 15, 2016, 7:57 pm

OAKMONT, Pa. – If all goes to plan Oakmont, the big and brutish layout befitting this area’s blue-collar persona, will relinquish center stage beginning at 6:45 a.m. on Thursday.

When the first meaningful shot goes in the air at the U.S. Open, all of the handwringing and hyperbole will fade to black.

There will still be complaints, this is the U.S. Open after all, but major championships aren’t supposed to be about growing grass and fluffing bunkers (note to the USGA: next time the championship makes a stop at Chambers Bay, grow grass). These Grand Slam stops are about the players and the play, and perhaps not since the original “Big Three” ruled golf have there been so many potential champions to choose from.

It’s a sign of the parity that has gripped golf that if you ask someone their favorite for this week’s championship the normal response is a few moments of awkward silence followed by a lengthy explanation.

Jason Day is the betting favorite and while the reigning world No. 1 certainly deserves the perch it seems the Australian arrived there more by default than his current dominance, at least if his own words are any measure.

“This is one tournament that is very stressful and I feel like I thrive under stress,” he said.

Then-world No. 1 Tiger Woods finished tied for second place, a stroke behind Angel Cabrera, the last time the national championship was held in the Pittsburgh suburbs, proving that chalk isn’t an entirely meaningless platform, but considering the congestion atop golf at the moment, it’s just as easy to make an argument that Jordan Spieth or Rory McIlroy or Dustin Johnson should be the favorite.

While Spieth may be fresh off the heartbreak of his Masters meltdown, he’s checked off all the right boxes in the weeks since Augusta National including a victory late last month at the Dean & Deluca Invitational.

“I did move on. I moved on,” Spieth said this week. “We went and won, and I think that was really big for us to actually win a tournament. Not just contend, but to actually close one out.”

If Spieth sounds a tad defensive when it comes to the state of his game he’s come by it honestly.

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Although 2016 hasn’t lived up to the expectations, however unrealistic they have may been, set by Spieth’s historic campaign last season he is still among the most likely candidates this week, maybe just not the most likely candidate.

Unlike the last few Opens at Pinehurst and Chambers Bay, Oakmont represents a return to a more traditional-style Open course where good putting is always an advantage, but not the most crucial element of a winning portfolio.

“I do feel it's a bit of a leveler, these greens,” Adam Scott said. “They're so difficult, the long range stuff and the speed that's involved. Of course, someone's going to make some long putts, but I think it's going to be much tougher than usual.”

Instead, ball-striking will be something of a force multiplier for a potential champion, specifically hitting fairways that are ringed by varying degrees of organic jail and oddly penal bunkers.

To a man, this week’s leading men have touched on the overriding need to play from the fairway to greens that have so much roll and wander that realistic birdie attempts will be hard to come by.

“The tee shot. There's 18 of them. The tee shot's most important on every hole. It is magnified this week,” said Phil Mickelson, a six-time bridesmaid at the U.S. Open in search of the final element of a career Grand Slam.

McIlroy concurred, telling reporters: “Just hit whatever club you can that you know is going to get it on the fairway. That's really what it is.”

Although the company line in these parts is that Oakmont is all at once the most demanding and most mentally taxing of the U.S. Open rotation courses, some observers bristle at the notion that the layout is a thinking man’s golf course, pointing out that most balls that find the rough leave just a single option – hit and hope.

The USGA’s practice of graduated rough will temper the severity of the rough, although exactly how much of a break it will give players is open to debate, but the specific demands of Oakmont will lead to a singular focus on ball control making the 116th edition of the national championship something less than the putting contest we’ve grown accustomed to in recent years.

“With the caliber of players here and whoever's in form this week, I think the guy Sunday who goes out and hits the fairways is going to give himself the best chance for the most birdies,” Scott said. “You're going to make some errors, but you're going to have to be in the short grass to make enough birdies.”

Players like Johnson, who came within a missed 12-footer for eagle on the 72nd hole last year at Chambers Bay, can take solace in a setup that will demand more from the tee than the green.

Or like McIlory whose major resume has largely been built on a tee-to-green game that can lap fields, even on the most demanding layouts, if the stars are aligned properly.

If luck truly favors the prepared, expect the usual suspects to also have an advantage. Maybe only the Masters drew more players in the weeks before the event than Oakmont, with Mickelson, McIlroy, Day, Scott and Johnson all making scouting trips to the course in the months leading up to the championship.

But most of all it’s the depth of talent currently atop the game that makes this major so compelling, much more so than deep rough and that soft sand that awaits in each bunker.

The cast of characters assembled at Oakmont defies normal handicapping, from Day to Dustin and Spieth to Scott each brings varying degrees of advantage to a potential victory.

The historic golf course has dictated the terms of this championship, but how each player executes those demands will be the most important story when play begins.

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Rahm manages frustration, two back at CareerBuilder

By Randall MellJanuary 21, 2018, 1:21 am

Jon Rahm managed the winds and his frustrations Saturday at the CareerBuilder Challenge to give himself a chance to win his fourth worldwide title in the last year.

Rahm’s 2-under-par 70 on the PGA West Stadium Course left him two shots off the lead going into the final round.

“I wasn’t really dealing with the wind that much,” Rahm said of his frustrations. “I was dealing with not being as fluid as I was the last two days.”

Full-field scores from the Career Builder Challenge

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The world’s No. 3 ranked player opened with a 62 at La Quinta Country Club on Thursday and followed it up with a 67 on Friday at PGA West. He made six birdies and four bogeys on the Stadium Course on Saturday.

“The first day, everything was outstanding,” Rahm said. “Yesterday, my driver was a little shaky but my irons shots were perfect. Today, my driver was shaky and my irons shots were shaky. On a course like this, it’s punishing, but luckily on the holes where I found the fairway I was able to make birdies.”

Rahm is projected to move to No. 2 in the world rankings with a finish of sixth or better on Sunday.

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Cook leads by one entering final round at CareerBuilder

By Associated PressJanuary 21, 2018, 12:51 am

LA QUINTA, Calif. – Austin Cook hit a hybrid into the fairway bunker on the par-4 18th on a breezy Saturday afternoon at La Quinta Country Club, then chunked a wedge and raced a chip 20 feet past the hole.

Kip Henley, the longtime PGA Tour caddie who guided Cook to a breakthrough victory at Sea Island in November, stepped in to give the 26-year-old former Arkansas star a quick pep talk.

''Kip said, 'Let's finish this like we did on the first day at the Nicklaus Course.' We made a big par putt on 18 there and he said, 'Let's just do the same thing. Let's get this line right and if you get the line right it's going in.'''

It did, giving Cook an 8-under 64 and a one-stroke lead in the CareerBuilder Challenge going into the final round on the Stadium Course at PGA West. Fellow former Razorback Andrew Landry and Martin Piller were tied for second, and Jon Rahm and Scott Piercy were a another stroke back after a tricky day in wind that didn't get close to the predicted gusts of 40 mph.

Full-field scores from the Career Builder Challenge

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''I know that I wouldn't have wanted to play the Stadium today,'' Cook said. ''I think we got a great draw with the courses that we got to play on the days that we got to play them.''

Cook played the final six holes on the front nine in 6 under with an eagle and four birdies.

''Starting on my fourth hole, I was able to make a birdie and kind of get the ball rolling and it never really stopped rolling,'' Cook said. ''Kip and I were doing really good at seeing the line on the greens.''

After a bogey on 10, he birdied 11, 12 and 15 and parred the final three to get to 19-under 197.

''I think that tonight the nerves, the butterflies, all that will kind of be a little less,'' Cook said. ''I've been in the situation before and I was able to finish the job on Sunday. I think it would be a little different if I didn't play like I did on Sunday at Sea Island.''

He's making his first start in the event.

''I came in from Hawaii on Monday, so I only had two days to prepare for three courses,'' Cook said.

Landry, the second-round leader, had a 70 at the Stadium. Piller, the husband of LPGA tour player Gerina Piller, shot a 67 at La Quinta. Winless on the PGA Tour, they will join Cook in the final threesome.

''Piller's a good guy and we have played a lot together and same with Cookie,'' said Landry, the only player without a bogey after 54 holes. ''Hope the Hogs are going to come out on top.''

Rahm had a 70 at the Stadium to reach 17 under. The third-ranked Rahm beat up the par 5s again, but had four bogeys – three on par 3s. He has played the 12 par 5s in 13 under with an eagle and 11 birdies.

''A little bit of a survival day,'' Rahm said.

The wind was more of a factor on the more exposed and tighter Stadium Course.

''The course is firming up,'' Rahm said. ''I know if we have similar wind to today, if we shoot something under par, you'll be way up there contesting it over the last few holes.''

Piercy had a 66 at the Stadium.

''I controlled my ball really well today,'' he said.

Adam Hadwin had a 67 at La Quinta a year after shooting a third-round 59 on the course. The Canadian was 16 under along with Grayson Murray and Brandon Harkins. Murray had a 67 on the Nicklaus Course, and Harkins shot 68 at the Stadium.

Phil Mickelson missed the cut in his first tournament of the year for the second time in his career, shooting a 74 on the Stadium to finish at 4 under – four strokes from a Sunday tee time. The 47-year-old Hall of Famer was playing for the first time since late October. He also missed the cut in the Phoenix Open in his 2009 opener.

Charlie Reiter, the Palm Desert High School senior playing on the first sponsor exemption the event has given to an amateur, also missed the cut. He had three early straight double bogeys in a 77 on the Stadium that left him 1 over.

John Daly had an 80 at La Quinta. He opened with a triple bogey and had six bogeys – four in a row to start his second nine - and only one birdie. The 51-year-old Daly opened with a 69 on the Nicklaus layout and had a 71 on Friday at the Stadium.

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Phil misses CareerBuilder cut for first time in 24 years

By Randall MellJanuary 21, 2018, 12:48 am

Phil Mickelson missed the cut Saturday at the CareerBuilder Challenge. It’s a rare occurrence in his Hall of Fame career.

He has played the event 15 times, going back to when it was known as the Bob Hope Classic. He has won it twice.

How rare is his missing the cut there?

The last time he did so, there was no such thing as a DVD, Wi-Fi, iPods, Xbox, DVR capability or YouTube.

Full-field scores from the Career Builder Challenge

CareerBuilder Challenge: Articles, photos and videos

The PGA Tour’s Jon Rahm didn’t exist, either.

The last time Mickelson missed a cut in this event was 1994, nine months before Rahm was born.

Mickelson struggled to a 2-over-par 74 in the heavy winds Saturday on the PGA West Stadium Course, missing the 54-hole cut by four shots. He hit just four of 14 fairways, just nine of 18 greens. He took a double bogey at the 15th after requiring two shots to escape the steep-walled bunker on the left side of the green.

Mickelson won’t have to wait long to try to get back in the hunt. He’s scheduled to play the Farmers Insurance Open next week at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, Calif.

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Defending champ Gana co-leads Latin America Amateur

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 11:20 pm

Toto Gana moved into early position to try to win a return trip to the Masters Saturday by grabbing a share of the first-round lead at the Latin America Amateur Championship.

The defending champ posted a 3-under-par 68 at Prince of Wales Country Club in his native Chile, equaling the rounds of Argentina’s Mark Montenegro and Colombia’s Pablo Torres.

They are one shot ahead of Mexico’s Alvaro Ortiz and Mario Carmona, Argentina’s Horacio Carbonetti and Jaime Lopez Rivarola and the Dominican Republic’s Rhadames Pena.

It’s a bunched leaderboard, with 19 players within three shots of each at the top of the board in the 72-hole event.

“I think I have my game under control,” said Gana, 20, a freshman at Lynn University. “I hit the ball very well, and I also putted very well. So, I am confident about tomorrow.”

The LAAC’s champion will get more than a Masters invitation. He also will be exempt into the The Amateur, the U.S. Amateur and any other USGA event he is eligible to play this year. The champion and players who finish runner-up are also exempt into the final stages of qualifying for The Open and the U.S. Open.

The LAAC was founded by the Masters, the R&A and the USGA, with the purpose of further developing amateur golf in South America, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean.