Steady Koepka is king of the Hills

By Rex HoggardJune 19, 2017, 2:23 am

ERIN, Wis. – Luckily for the 117th U.S. Open, headlines don’t always tell the complete story.

In order, a balloon tumbled from the sky in a fiery ball on Thursday, then the next day officials announced an E. coli scare on property. It all kind of made one pine for the days when the most frightening thing at the championship was deep rough and a USGA official waiting for you with a rulebook on the 12th tee.

But for all the distractions at Erin Chills, all the social media scuffling over supercharged fescue and a golf course that could be stretched to 18 miles, it was a fresh wind from the northwest and the inspired play of Brooks Koepka on Sunday that turned what could have been a week to forget into something worth remembering.

After four days of wild lead changes and frenzied congestion, Koepka converted the clutch putts, took advantage of a rare U.S. Open venue with four par 5s and limited his misses, not posting a single score worse than bogey at what turned out to be an MIA Open for the missing marquee.

A week that began with no Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson, marking the first time since 1994 at least one of the game’s leading men wasn’t in the field at a major, begat a weekend without world Nos. 1, 2 and 3 – Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day, respectively – for the first time at a major.

While those titans may have been missed, it turns out they simply missed Koepka’s coronation, the completion of his transition from a calm and confident player with plenty of potential to a bona fide star who didn’t blink when the game’s most demanding test finally arrived on Day 4.

Even when Hideki Matsuyama made the long walk up the hill to the scoring area with the clubhouse lead at 12 under Koepka kept up appearances, which in his case would best be described as intense indifference. Or maybe aloof aplomb would be a better way to sum up the 27-year-old’s unique persona.


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With Matsuyama setting the mark, Koepka answered by rolling in 32 feet of birdie putts at the 14th, 15th and 16th holes to move four clear of the field. He cruised home from there to a record-tying total in relation to par at 16 under and his first major title.

“This week I honestly don’t think I ever got nervous, I just stayed in the moment,” Koepka said with a signature shrug.

The Erin Hills Open may have been an extreme break from the norm, with 31 players finishing under par for the week, but to casual observers the final outcome probably looked vaguely familiar to last year’s event which was won by Dustin Johnson, a close friend of Koepka’s and something of his equal in the flat-liner department.

Johnson, who won last year with a similarly commanding performance at Oakmont, called Koepka on the eve of the final round to offer support and the two spent time together earlier this week playing practice rounds and doing whatever world-class athletes do when they aren’t winning.

“He’s always pretty flat line, I think that’s why people compare him to DJ and it’s why they get along so well. They are similar people, nothing fazes them and they’re pretty chilled out,” said Koepka’s swing coach, Claude Harmon III.

Beyond that calm exterior and limitless power, however, there’s a subtle if not substantial difference between Koepka and Johnson. Unlike the world No. 1, Koepka didn’t arrive on the PGA Tour with untold fanfare or enjoy immediate and unqualified success.

Instead, he forged a much different path, starting out on the European Challenge Tour, the Continent’s version of Triple A golf, before moving onto the European Tour.

He played tournaments in far-flung places like Kazakhstan and had to have extra pages put into his passport at one point because of his extensive travels. But most importantly he learned.

“He’s slept in his car, he’s done everything on the way up. He’s slept in a B&B with four of us and struggled along the way and that’s helped him appreciate where he is,” said Koepka’s caddie Ricky Elliott.

So when he began this year by missing four of his first six cuts, he didn’t panic, he didn’t try to find new answers or reinvent a wheel that has always run at an extremely high speed.

“It’s the Mike Tyson thing. It had been easy up until the beginning of this year for Brooks. But as Mike Tyson said, ‘Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.’ All of a sudden golf’s not easy,” Harmon said. “He missed a bunch of cuts and I think it spurred him on. He bounced back and recovered from that. It was massive.”

Koepka’s victory was equally massive for a championship that seemed to lack an identity, initially as a result of the perceived missing star power and then as scoring reached record levels.

Rickie Fowler initially filled the star void, taking the first-round lead with a 65 and starting the final round just two strokes back, but he never managed to close the gap and finished with an even-par 72 to tie for fifth.

Brian Harman emerged on the weekend as a potential breakout player and for 63 holes a steady putter kept him in contention. But after crucial par putts at the sixth and ninth holes to keep pace with Koepka, Harman’s chances slowly devolved into a “dogs chasing cars” deal, with missed par attempts at the 12th and 13th holes. After going 25 holes without a bogey, he never recovered and tied for second place at 12 under par.

“If you would have told me I’d shoot 12 under at the U.S. Open and not win I’d have taken the bet for sure,” said Harman, who had made the cut in just two of his previous seven major starts.

What the leaderboard may have lacked in marquee, it made up for in variety. Four players shared the lead at the turn on Friday and that number ballooned to seven players midway through Round 3 before separation Sunday finally arrived.

The 117th edition may not have been the showstopper officials had been hoping for, but after taking a few shots to the chin in recent years the USGA’s experiment at Erin Hills was widely considered a success, qualified or otherwise.

“I think they did a fantastic job,” said Jordan Spieth, one of the few high-profile players to even make it to the weekend. “Chambers [Bay] was tough with the greens, and then last year had a tough Sunday. And I thought that the USGA did a phenomenal job this week of allowing the golf course to be what it is and play the way it's supposed to play. Not trying to do anything to hold any kind of standard. Instead, create an environment where if you play well, you can score, and if you don't, then it can go the other way.”

In many minds the Erin Hills Open was likely saved by Sunday’s breeze. After three days of record scoring that included Justin Thomas’ 9-under 63 – the lowest score in relation to par ever at the U.S. Open, which prompted the previous record holder Johnny Miller to compare the event with the Milwaukee Open – balance and a bite was returned to the golf universe on Day 4.

Sunday’s winds finally put the fear back in the golf, where it should be at the U.S. Open, and as is always the case the most fearless player emerged.

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Kelly, Sauers co-lead in Hawaii; Monty, Couples in mix

By Associated PressJanuary 19, 2018, 3:52 am

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii - Fresh off a solid performance on Oahu, Jerry Kelly shot an 8-under 64 on the Big Island on Thursday to share the first-round lead at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.

The 51-year-old Kelly, who tied for 14th at the PGA Tour's Sony Open last week in Honolulu, birdied five of his final seven holes to shoot 30 on the back nine at Hualalai. He won twice last season, his first on the over-50 tour.

Gene Sauers also shot 64, going bogey-free amid calm conditions. Thirty-two of the 44 players broke par in the limited-field event, which includes winners from last season, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.

Rocco Mediate and Colin Montgomerie were one shot back, and Fred Couples, Kevin Sutherland and Kirk Triplett were another shot behind.

Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, was in the middle of the pack after a 69.

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Rahm (62) fires career low round

By Will GrayJanuary 19, 2018, 12:03 am

The scores were predictably low during the opening round of the CareerBuilder Challenge, where the top-ranked player in the field currently sits atop the standings. Here's how things look after the first day in Palm Springs as Jon Rahm is out to an early advantage:

Leaderboard: Jon Rahm (-10), Austin Cook (-9), Andrew Landry (-9), Jason Kokrak (-9), Brandon Harkins (-8), Martin Piller (-8), Aaron Wise (-8), Beau Hossler (-8)

What it means: Rahm is coming off a runner-up finish two weeks ago at Kapalua, and he picked up right where he left off with a 10-under 62 at La Quinta Country Club. It marked his lowest career round on the PGA Tour, and it gave him a one-shot lead heading to the Nicklaus Tournament Course. Cook is the only player within two shots of Rahm who has won already on Tour.

Round of the day: Rahm got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under, and he made it around La Quinta without dropping a shot. The 62 bettered his previous career low on Tour by two shots and it included an eagle on the par-5 fifth hole to go along with eight birdies.

Best of the rest: Cook was a winner earlier this season at the RSM Classic, and he's now in the mix for trophy No. 2 following a 9-under 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course. Like Rahm, he opened with a seven-hole stretch at 6 under and turned in a scorecard without a bogey. He'll now head to the more difficult Stadium Course for his second round.

Biggest disappointment: Patrick Reed blitzed the three-course rotation in Palm Springs en route to his first career Tour title back in 2014, but he's unlikely to repeat that feat after opening with a 2-over 74 on the Nicklaus Tournament course. Reed made only one birdie against three bogeys and was one of only 32 players in the 156-man field who failed to break par in the opening round.

Main storyline heading into Friday: Rahm deserves the spotlight, as he entered the week as one of the event's headliners and did nothing to lose that billing in the opening round. But the pack of contenders is sure to keep pace, while players like Phil Mickelson (-2) will look to put up a low score in order to build some momentum heading into the weekend.

Shot of the day: Wesley Bryan's 7-under 65 on the Nicklaus Tournament course was helped in large part by an eagle on the par-4 10th, where he holed a 54-degree wedge from 112 yards away. Bryan went on to birdie the next hole amid a five-hole stretch of 5 under play.

Quote of the day: "Shot 10 under par. There's not much more I can ask for." - Rahm

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Recent winner Cook contending at CareerBuilder

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 11:45 pm

Patton Kizzire is currently the only two-time PGA Tour winner this season, but Austin Cook hopes to join him this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge.

Cook won for the first time in November at the RSM Classic, a victory that catapaulted him from the Web.com Tour graduate category into an entirely new echelon. Cook notched a pair of top-25 finishes over the last two weeks in Hawaii, and he's again in the mix after an opening 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course left him one shot behind Jon Rahm.

"Today was great," Cook told reporters. "The conditions were perfect, but I always loved desert golf and I was just hitting the ball well and seeing good lines on the greens and hitting good putts."

Cook got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under highlighted by an eagle on the par-5 fourth hole. He briefly entertained the notion of a sub-60 round after birdies on Nos. 10 and 11 before closing with six pars and a birdie.


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Cook was a relative unknown before his victory at Sea Island earlier this season, but now with the flexibility and confidence afforded by a win he hopes to build on his burgeoning momentum this week in California.

"That was a big, proud moment for myself, knowing that I can finish a tournament," Cook said. "I think it was one of those things that I've proven to myself that now I can do it, and it just meant the world to me."

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Photo: Fleetwood's phone cover is picture of Bjorn

By Jason CrookJanuary 18, 2018, 11:40 pm

There's phone covers and then there are Phone Covers.

Paul Casey has himself a Phone Cover, showing off the protective case that features a picture of his wife at last year's U.S. Open.

Now, it appears, Tommy Fleetwood has joined the movement.

Fleetwood, last year's season-long Race to Dubai winner, has a phone cover with a picture of Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn on it. And not even a current Thomas Bjorn. This is a young Bjorn. A hair-having Bjorn.

@tommyfleetwood_1

A post shared by Alex Noren (@alexnoren1) on

The 26-year-old is a virtual lock for this year's European Ryder Cup team, but just in case, he's carrying around a phone with a picture of the team captain attached to the back of it.

It's a bold strategy, Cotton. Let's see if it pays off for him.