Erin Hills continues to produce a wide-open Open

By Rex HoggardJune 18, 2017, 12:54 am

ERIN, Wis. – The consensus opinion after two days in America’s dairyland was that the congestion that defined the first two days at the U.S. Open would only be cleared by an increasingly difficult golf course.

As has been the case all week at the build-it-and-they-will-come venue nothing could have been further from the truth.

Instead of a return to the norm, to a time when when par is the goal and bogeys can feel like moral victories, Saturday’s action turned out to be more of the same with another barrage of low scoring and a championship record round that did nothing to break the gridlock.

Justin Thomas, who began Day 3 five strokes off the pace, became the first player to post a 9-under card in America’s national championship, breaking the record set by Johnny Miller at the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont.

Thomas’ 63, which included two bogeys, moved him two strokes clear of the field at 11 under par on a course that has been transformed into the Greater Milwaukee Open by plenty of rain and winds that have yet to reach anything more than a gentle breeze.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Erin Hills was supposed to be a bomber’s golf course where only a handful of players had a chance to win, where disaster awaited on the weekend and, our personal favorite, where the USGA was poised to put the tough back into the test.

Wrong, wrong and wrong.

Even at 7,818 yards, nearly 4 ½ miles, the kids are having their way, with five players joining Thomas with double-digit under-par totals on Saturday and more than half the remaining field, 42 of 68, lingering on the red side of par.

“It doesn't matter how long the course is. Give us good weather and good greens, we're going to shoot good scores,” said Thomas, who added his third-round 63 to the 59 he shot earlier this year at the Sony Open.

U.S. Open: Scores | Live blog: Day 3 | Full coverage

Whether this week’s display is good for golf is a debate for another day, and probably another golf course, but there is no more room for doubt when it comes to Erin Hills; without an assist from Mother Nature the game’s best can make a pitch-and-putt out of even the longest layouts.

For three days players have been bracing for the USGA’s worse, reciprocity for record low scoring, but instead it was Thomas’ brilliance that seemed to provide a measure of clarity, at least for a few glorious hours.

Before the final group had even started their day they were joined by a threesome of front-runners – bringing the dance card to seven leaders and seven players tied for second place – and for the majority of the afternoon no fewer than a half dozen contenders moved in and out of the lead.

Thomas broke the congestion when he rolled in his 8-footer for eagle at the last to move two clear of the field, only to watch his historic handiwork fall short to a 5-foot-7 southpaw who by most accounts had no chance to contend at Endless Hills.

Brian Harman retook the lead with birdies at Nos. 14 and 15, salvaged a bogey at the 17th hole and finished at 12 under par, a shot clear of Thomas, Brooks Koepka and Tommy Fleetwood.

All told, eight players are within five strokes of the lead, which given the volatile nature of this week’s outing is a statistical dead heat. With not a single major champion inside the top 16 through three laps, the biggest question going into Sunday Funday is how far back is too far back?

“It just depends on the weather. Someone could get out early and shoot a low score. Justin did it today. It's out there, for sure. There's no telling how low,” said Harman, who posted his second 67 of the week on Saturday. “I could not be leading the golf tournament by the time I tee off tomorrow. That's a very real possibility.”

Given the historic nature of this week’s scoring – consider that from 1895 to 2016, just a single player finished at 11 under or better through 54 holes at the U.S. Open – maybe the more esoteric question is how many birdies are too many birdies?

For three days, the best and brightest have enjoyed a respite from the normal grind, but make no mistake, the majority of players who will set out on Sunday with visions of a trophy ceremony in their heads would like nothing more than a U.S. Open to break out for the final 18.

“I would definitely like to see it dry out a little bit. Make the lines a little tighter just as far as off the tee and into some greens where you have to hit your spots just a little bit more,” said Rickie Fowler, who birdied three of his last five holes to finish at 10 under par. “It makes it to where you have to be just a little bit more precise.”

Maybe the real U.S. Open will finally make a cameo on Sunday when winds are expected to reach 15 mph about the time the final groups take the field, but then nothing else has gone to plan at the 117th edition.

Unless the USGA backs some tees up to Lambeau Field and hides a couple of pins in that healthy fescue, it seems more likely that the final round will be more of the same – with plenty of low scores, wild lead changes and more uncertainty right up until the bitter end.

Photo by Enrique Berardi/LAAC

Top-ranked amateur Niemann one back at LAAC in Chile

By Nick MentaJanuary 21, 2018, 8:44 pm

Argentina’s Jaime Lopez Rivarola leads the Latin America Amateur Championship at 5 under par following a round of 3-under 68 Saturday in Chile.

The former Georgia Bulldog is now 36 holes from what would be a return trip to Augusta National but his first Masters.

"The truth is that I crossed off on my bucket list playing Augusta [National], because I happened to play there," Rivarola said. "I've played every year with my university. But playing in the Masters is a completely different thing. I have been to the Masters, and I've watched the players play during the practice rounds. But [competing would be] a completely different thing."

He is followed on the leaderboard by the three players who competed in the playoff that decided last year’s LAAC in Panama: Joaquin Niemann (-4), Toto Gana (-4), and Alvaro Ortiz (-3).

Click here for full-field scores from the Latin America Amateur Championship

Chile’s Niemann is the top-ranked amateur in the world who currently holds conditional status on the Tour and is poised to begin his career as a professional, unless of course he takes the title this week. After a disappointing 74 in Round 1, Niemann was 10 shots better in Round 2, rocketing up the leaderboard with a 7-under 64.

“Today, I had a completely different mentality, and that's usually what happens in my case," Niemann said. "When I shoot a bad round, the following day I have extra motivation. I realize and I feel that I have to play my best golf. The key to being a good golfer is to find those thoughts and to transfer them into good golf."

Niemann’s fellow Chilean and best friend Gana is the defending champion who missed the cut at the Masters last year and is now a freshman at Lynn University. His second-round 70 was a roller coaster, complete with six birdies, three eagles and a double.

Mexico’s Ortiz, the brother of three-time Tour winner Carlos, was 6 under for the week before three back-nine bogeys dropped him off the pace.

Two past champions, Matias Dominguez and Paul Chaplet, sit 5 over and 7 over, respectively.

The winner of the Latin America Amateur Championship earns an invite to this year’s Masters. He is also exempt into the The Amateur Championship, the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Open sectional qualifying, and Open Championship final qualifying.

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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.