More to 2014 U.S. Open than just Phil and Pinehurst

By Rex HoggardJune 11, 2014, 6:10 pm

PINEHURST, N.C. – Phil Mickelson and Pinehurst.

Pinehurst and Phil Mickelson.

After weeks of chatter that’s what the 114th U.S. Open has come down to – a 43-year-old trying to pen a memorable final chapter and an iconic course that has turned back the clock for all the right reasons.

Ever since Lefty hoisted the claret jug on a similarly brownish layout last July at Muirfield the talk, much of it born from his own admissions, has fixated on Mickelson completing the career Grand Slam at Pinehurst, the site of his first national heartbreak back in 1999.

“The thing for me is that I look at those close calls as positive signs for having given myself so many opportunities in our national championship,” said Mickelson, a six-time runner-up at the U.S. Open. “I believe that I’ll have more opportunities.”

Perhaps. Maybe this will be Phil’s week where the missed opportunities from Merion to Winged Foot are washed away, but there is no sugar coating the fact that along with the pressures of completing the career Grand Slam Mickelson will also be dealing with a balky putter (he switched to a modified claw grip … this week) and an ongoing federal investigation over possible insider trading.

Nothing spices up a post-round interview like federal agents looming to ask uncomfortable questions.

Which leaves Pinehurst, which has been left scruffy and brown by Mother Nature and architects Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore’s handiwork.

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While player reaction has been mixed this week regarding the new-look No. 2, there is an undercurrent of concern among the rank and file.

“Kind of looks like Shinnecock (Hills),” figured one player as he glanced over the scorched landscape on Wednesday.

And we all know how that turned out (see U.S. Open, 2004).

Yet for all the fixation on Mickelson and the venue, the reality is only once in the last 20 years have either of those elements emerged as the ultimate Sunday storyline – in 2006 when Mickelson sliced his title chances into corporate tents and ’04 when the U.S. Golf Association did the same with its setup of Shinnecock Hills.

History strongly suggests the final headline will have nothing to do with either the course or Mickelson. It’s not as though either story isn’t compelling; it’s just that among the 155 other options there are too many Plan B’s to ignore.

Consider Rory McIlroy, this week’s betting favorite, hasn’t finished outside the top 25 on the PGA Tour this season and won the European Tour’s flagship event three weeks with a commanding final round.

The Northern Irishman is also showing the same overpowering precision off the tee that he enjoyed when he lapped the field at the 2011 U.S. Open by eight strokes.

“He is in a really, really good spot,” said Dave Stockton Sr., McIlroy’s putting coach. “He’s worked harder on his game now than maybe ever. He’s focused on his golf.”

In a twist of fate, however, few within the golf world are focused on him this week.

The same could be said for Adam Scott, perhaps the most under-the-radar world No. 1 coming into a major championship.

Never mind that after assuming the world’s top spot from his couch last month he’s won (Crowne Plaza Invitational) and finished tied for fourth (Memorial Tournament).

Never mind that the Australian ranks among the top 5 on Tour this season in ball-striking, total driving, scoring and birdie average, all areas that would seem to play well on No. 2.

To put Scott’s obscurity in context, during his news conference on Wednesday morning he was asked seven questions. By comparison, Mickelson’s media Q&A on Tuesday included 20 questions.

The week has seen similar scenarios across the tee sheet.

From Jason Day, perhaps the hottest player in golf this year until he landed on the DL with an ailing thumb after winning the WGC-Match Play Championship, to Matt Kuchar, who would top many lists for the most likely player to join the major championship club this week, and Henrik Stenson, the world’s second-ranked player who wasn’t even asked to endure a news conference.

For all the hyperbole over Mickelson and Pinehurst, it seems much more likely it will be a “non-story” who steals the spotlight when play begins on Thursday just before 7 a.m. ET.

Someone like Nicolas Colsaerts, who opened with a 69 last year at Merion and tied for 10th, or Michael Thompson, who was the surprise first-round leader two years ago at The Olympic Club.

And what of Mother Nature, the ultimate harbinger of how things transpire at any golf tournament?

The forecast for rain chances varies between 50 percent (Thursday) to 30 percent (Saturday), but as USGA executive director Mike Davis pointed out on Wednesday the forecast has been the same for days with virtually no relief for the parched golf course.

The event would seem to have a Benjamin Button feel to it with the course evolving in the opposite direction from most major championships.

Normally these Grand Slam soirees become increasingly more difficult, but as a result of the forecast and the realities of next week’s U.S. Women’s Open, which will be played on the No. 2 course, officials may have to dial things back as the tournament progresses.

The ever-present alternative is a golf course that can so easily lapse over the line between fair and impossibly frustrating.

“When you are watching well-executed shots being penalized, we never want that,” Davis said. “Having said that, when you get the world’s best players, and we’re trying to set it up in this manner it’s probably easier to cross the line.”

The only certainty, however, is that the final line won’t likely be about the course or Mickelson – despite the pre-tournament hype. The national championship has a tendency to dig much deeper for it’s storylines.

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Confident Lincicome lurking after 54 holes at Founders

By Randy SmithMarch 18, 2018, 2:45 am

PHOENIX – Brittany Lincicome is farther back than she wanted to be going into Sunday at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, but she’s in a good place.

She’s keeping the momentum of her season-opening Pure Silk Bahamas Classic victory going this year.

Her confidence is high.

“Last year, I won in the Bahamas, but then I didn't do anything after that,” Lincicome said. “I don't even know if I had a top 10 after my win in the Bahamas. Obviously, this year, I want to be more consistent.”

Lincicome followed up her victory in the Bahamas this year with a tie for seventh in her next start at the Honda LPGA Thailand. And now she’s right back on another leaderboard with the year’s first major championship just two weeks away. She is, by the way, a two-time winner at the ANA Inspiration.

Missy Pederson, Lincicome’s caddie, is helping her player keep that momentum going with more focus on honing in the scoring clubs.

“One of our major goals is being more consistent,” Pederson said. “She’s so talented, a once in a generation talent. I’m just trying to help out in how to best approach every golf course.”

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

Pederson has helped Lincicome identify the clubs they’re likely to attack most with on the particular course they are playing that week, to spend more time working with those clubs in practice. It’s building confidence.

“I know the more greens we hit, and the more chances we give ourselves, the more our chances are to be in contention,” Pederson said. “Britt is not big into stats or details, so I have to figure out how to best consolidate that information, to get us exactly where we need to be.”

Lincicome’s growing comfort with clubs she can attack with is helping her confidence through a round.

“I’ve most noticed consistency in her mental game, being able to handle some of the hiccups that happen over the course of a round,” Pederson said. “Whereas before, something might get under her skin, where she might say, `That’s what always happens,’ now, it’s, `All right, I know I’m good enough to get this back.’ I try to get her in positions to hit the clubs we are really hitting well right now.”

That’s leading to a lot more birdies, fewer bogeys and more appearances on leaderboards in the start to this year.

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Returning Park grabs 54-hole Founders lead

By Randall MellMarch 18, 2018, 2:09 am

PHOENIX – In the long shadows falling across Wildfire Golf Club late Saturday afternoon, Inbee Park conceded she was tempted to walk away from the game last year.

While healing a bad back, she was tempted to put her clubs away for good and look for a second chapter for her life.

But then . . .

“Looking at the girls playing on TV, you think you want to be out there” Park said. “Really, I couldn't make my mind up when I was taking that break, but as soon as I'm back here, I just feel like this is where I belong.”

In just her second start after seven months away from the LPGA, Park is playing like she never left.

She’s atop a leaderboard at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, looking like that’s exactly where she belongs.

With a 9-under-par 63 Saturday, Park seized the lead going into the final round.

At 14 under overall, she’s one shot ahead of Mariajo Uribe (67), two ahead of Ariya Jutanugarn (68) and three ahead of 54-year-old World Golf Hall of Famer Laura Davies (63) and Chella Choi (66).

Park’s back with a hot putter.

That’s not good news for the rest of the tour. Nobody can demoralize a field with a flat stick like Park. She’s one of the best putters the women’s game has ever seen, and on the front nine Saturday she looked as good as she ever has.

“The front nine was scary,” said her caddie, Brad Beecher, who was on Park’s bag for her long run at world No. 1, her run of three consecutive major championship victories in 2013 and her gold medal victory at the Olympics two years ago.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

“The front nine was great . . . like 2013,” Park said.

Park started her round on fire, going birdie-birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie. She was 6 under through five holes. She holed a wedge from 98 yards at the third hole, making the turn having taken just 10 putts. Yeah, she said, she was thinking about shooting 59.

“But I'm still really happy with my round today,” she said.

Park isn’t getting ahead of herself, even with this lead. She said her game isn’t quite where she wants it with the ANA Inspiration, the year’s first major championship, just two weeks away, but a victory Sunday should go a long way toward getting her there.

Park is only 29. LPGA pros haven’t forgotten what it was like when she was dominating, when she won 14 times between 2013 and ’15.

They haven’t forgotten how she can come back from long layoffs with an uncanny ability to pick up right where she left off.

Park won the gold medal in Rio de Janeiro in her first start back after missing two months because of a ligament injury in her left thumb. She took eight months off after Rio and came back to win the HSBC Women’s World Championship last year in just her second start. She left the tour again in the summer with an aching back.

“I feel like Inbee could take off a whole year or two years and come back and win every week,” said Brittany Lincicome, who is four shots behind Park. “Her game is just so consistent. She doesn't do anything flashy, but her putting is flashy.

“She literally walks them in. It's incredible, like you know it's going in when she hits it. It's not the most orthodox looking stroke, but she can repeat it.”

Park may not play as full a schedule as she has in the past, Beecher said, but he believes she can thrive with limited starts.

“I think it helps her get that fight back, to get that hunger back,” Beecher said. “She knows she can play 15 events a year and still compete. There aren’t a lot of players who can do that.”

Park enjoyed her time away last year, and how it re-energized her.

“When I was taking the long break, I was just thinking, `I can do this life as well,’” Park said. “But I'm glad I came back out here. Obviously, days like today, that's the reason I'm playing golf.”

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Joh on St. Patrick's ace: Go broke buying green beers

By Randall MellMarch 18, 2018, 12:57 am

PHOENIX – Tiffany Joh was thrilled making a run into contention to win her first LPGA title Saturday at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, but she comically cracked that her hole-in-one might have been ill-timed.

It came on St. Patrick’s Day.

“This is like the worst holiday to be making a hole-in-one on,” Joh said. “You'll go broke buying everyone green beers.”

Joh aced the fifth hole with a 5-iron from 166 yards on her way to an 8-under-par 64. It left her four shots behind the leader, Inbee Park (63).

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

One of the more colorful players on tour, Joh said she made the most of her hole-in-one celebration with playing partner Jane Park.

“First I ran and tackled Jane, then I high-fived like every single person walking to the green,” Joh said.

Joh may be the LPGA’s resident comedian, but she faced a serious challenge on tour last year.  Fourteen months ago, she had surgery to remove a malignant melanoma. She won the LPGA’s Heather Farr Perseverance Award for the way she handled her comeback.

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Davies, 54, still thinks she can win, dreams of HOF

By Randall MellMarch 18, 2018, 12:22 am

PHOENIX – Laura Davies limped around Wildfire Golf Club Saturday with an ache radiating from her left Achilles up into her calf muscle at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup.

“Every step is just misery,” Davies said after. “It’s just getting older. Don’t get old.”

She’s 54, but she played the third round as if she were 32 again.

That’s how old she was when she was the LPGA’s Rolex Player of the Year and won two major championships.

With every sweet swing Saturday, Davies peeled back the years, turning back the clock.

Rolling in a 6-foot birdie at the 17th, Davies moved into a tie for the lead with Inbee Park, a lead that wouldn’t last long with so many players still on the course when she finished. Still, with a 9-under-par 63, Davies moved into contention to try to become the oldest winner in LPGA history.

Davies has won 20 LPGA titles, 45 Ladies European Tour titles, but she hasn’t won an LPGA event in 17 years, since taking the Wegmans Rochester International.

Can she can surpass the mark Beth Daniel set winning at 46?

“I still think I can win,” Davies said. “This just backs that up for me. Other people, I don’t know, they’re always asking me now when I’m going to retire. I always say I’m still playing good golf, and now here’s the proof of it.”

Davies knows it will take a special day with the kind of final-round pressure building that she hasn’t experienced in awhile.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

“The pressure will be a lot more tomorrow,” she said. “We'll see, won’t sleep that well tonight. The good news is that I’ll probably be four or five behind by the end of the day, so the pressure won’t be there as much.”

Davies acknowledged confidence is harder to garner, as disappointments and missed cuts pile up, but she’s holding on to her belief she can still win.

“I said to my caddie, `Jeez, I haven't been on top of the leaderboard for a long time,’” Davies said. “That's nice, obviously, but you’ve got to stay there. That's the biggest challenge.”

About that aching left leg, Davies was asked if it could prevent her from challenging on Sunday.

“I’ll crawl around if I have to,” she said.

Saturday’s 63 was Davies’ lowest round in an LPGA event since she shot 63 at the Wendy’s Championship a dozen years ago.

While Davies is a World Golf Hall of Famer, she has been sitting just outside the qualification standard needed to get into the LPGA Hall of Fame for a long time. She needs 27 points, but she has been stuck on 25 since her last victory in ’01. A regular tour title is worth one point, a major championship is worth two points.

Davies said she still dreams about qualifying.

“You never know,” she said.