How Bout This Year in Golf
Tigers victory at The Masters this spring recalled an achievement untouched in some 70 years. He evoked Bobby Jones, the only other man to have consecutively won his eras four most important championships. Woods emanates a radiance that Jones possessed, one that captivated an entire country, the world even. While Tigers slam tied two seasons together, Jones won his slam - the amateur and open titles each in the U.S. and Great Britain - in the same year, 1930. He retired soon after, and then embarked on building Augusta National. That Tigers ultimate ascension would occur at the house that Jones built, a special place that embodies a bit of the past and future of America, is quite significant. It was nearly 25 years ago that Lee Elder became the first black man to play in the Masters.
The U.S. Open was as bizarre as The Masters was historic. This was a golf tournament as Carnoustian folly. And while no one wishes on anyone the kind of calamity that visited Van de Velde, he did give the golfing literati a little toy with which to play. It was a standard bearer in tragic-comedy. Thus you can use Carnoustian, as well as Van de Veldian, as you would Shakespearean. This particular U.S. Open at Southern Hills in Oklahoma starred Retief Goosen, the very unassuming South African with the pretty rhythm, so efficient and placid you hardly notice, the kind every era seems to have. A Julius Boros, say, or an Al Geiberger or even Ernie Els, another South African whod already won a U.S. Open at Oakmont in 1994. That type.
It also featured Mark Brooks, a wiry Texan whos from the school where you shape your ball rather than overpower it. Also, there was Stewart Cink, perhaps a taller, American version of Goosen ' unassuming, underrated even, but not in-your-face with greatness.
The feeling Saturday night was that the final picture figured to include the more splashy names of Duval, Mickelson and Garcia. Mickelson, you would think, is destined to win a U.S. Open someday, for this is the guy whom Payne Stewart touched shortly before he passed on. Payne had made that snaking putt on a misty day to win at Pinehurst, and then put his arms on Phils shoulders, as if to bless him. But Phil just didnt have it at Southern Hills. And naturally there was then a more fevered pitch to the debate, Will Phil ever win a major?
Meanwhile, Sergio had already proven his mettle at classic courses that placed a premium on accuracy and shot-making, layouts like Colonial and later Westchester. Southern Hills fit his driving skills quite well. But Sergio it turns out was most remembered that weekend for his incessant fidgeting, the count-em- till-he-stops grip and re-grip habit which proved difficult to watch. Like Phil, Sergio didnt perform well on Sunday. David Duval, too, simply couldnt eliminate his mistakes, but he would later put it all brilliantly together at the British Open.
So, as is often the case at a national championship, this one was lost rather than won daringly, and contested to the finish by everymen and not the super-duper stars. Think Lou Graham. Steve Jones. At Southern Hills, Goosen strode up the 18th green a sure winner, handsome and even refined. He would be a pleasant, though not overly charismatic, champion from a country that had given us many a great golfing hero - Gary Player, Bobby Locke, Ernie Els.
We admired his 6-iron, majestic and pure to some 12 feet or so. Cink needed to hole a long one to tie Goosen, who it was assumed would two-putt. Brooks had already three-putted, and he, too, was resigned to his fate, knowing Goosen couldnt possibly blow it as close as he was. Cink rolled a beauty, nearly holing it, producing a full-throated groan from the gallery. Good try, but not to be. The come-backer really meant so little, not with Goosen in so close. Cink stroked his bogey putt from only a couple of feet, and it missed. There was the customary gasp from the audience simply because it was rather short, not because hed blown something sacred.
Goosen then putted, but rather than cozy it up, he threw it by the hole some two to three feet. And then came the oh-my-gosh golfing moment of the year. Goosen missed. Hed made five. Three-putted from short range. Brooks would go to a playoff on Monday with Goosen. Cink would go home and explain that he didnt feel badly, that hed hit a good first putt and had had no idea that his bogey putt would mean anything.
Goosen met the failure straight up, answering questions before retiring to his room. He gathered himself well, and won going away the next day. In the end he had not suffered a Van de Veldian fate. He was instead a U.S. Open champion. And we as writers and fans hadnt had that much disbelieving fervor beneath a golf discussion since perhaps Tiger at Pebble and certainly Van de Velde at Carnoustie in 1999.
Other highlights this season in no particular order of importance, but simply for their impact, are as follows:
Tigers putt at 17 at The Players, suggesting there was no limit to his magic;
David Toms hole-in-one Saturday at the PGA Championship, second in my shot-of-the-year category behind Tigers more historically important last putt at Augusta to clinch four in a row;
Toms ice-cold, no-doubt-about-it lay-up par to beat Mickelson at that PGA Championship;
The flowering of Charles Howell, for while we knew he was good, who couldve imagined that by seasons end hed be dressed like Jesper and also among the most quotable players on Tour;
Another gratifying rags-to-riches tale in Jose Coceres, who rose from poverty in Argentina to become a winner on The PGA Tour at 38, taking Hilton Head and Disney, where he wore an American pin on his lapel, saying in his halting English later that after September 11 we are all Americans;
Mickelsons par at Bay Hills 72nd, only to be trumped by Tigers birdie;
Annikas 59, demonstrating that men dont have an exclusive on the unbelievable in golf;
Karries U.S. Womens Open runaway, proving that while Annika had had the better overall year, Karrie may still be the best player in the world;
Karries tears for her grandfather while winning The McDonalds, reminding people Karrie is not emotionless;
Jacks run at Salem, and hasnt he always given us a run somewhere, even now into his early 60s, for crying out loud; and isnt it always electrifying even if he doesnt win?!;
Ty Tryons teenage smile at the Honda, and here comes a whole new generation of kids who dont necessarily place limits on themselves.
Some personal moments and people Ill remember:
The firemen of Engine 22, Ladder 13 in Manhattan, who shared their stories and their meat loaf with us one month after the attacks as we prepared a Golf Central special for Thanksgiving Eve; all the brave families, too, for whom in many cases golf was some of the good in the good times remembered;
And finally, Cliff Kresge, a struggling pro who toiled on the PGA Tour and will have to return to Q-School. While covering the late October Buick Challenge in Pine Mountain, Georgia, I bumped into Cliff Wednesday evening before the tournament in the hotel lobby. He seemed happy, strolling his little boy, Mason, alongside his wife, Tina. We chatted. He was playful with his son. I asked him if he was excited for the tournament to start, for the chance to make a late-season run. He told me with no trace of bitterness that he wasnt in the tournament; that theyd come down as an alternate, on their own dime, on the hope that someone would drop out.
It didnt happen. But what struck me was how optimistic he and his wife were. It seemed as if with their baby they understood that they were lucky, even if this year hadnt worked out as theyd planned. I said goodbye to them, in a strange way equally as optimistic that this game will continue on in good stead as much because of people like Cliff Kresge as Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus and Annika Sorenstam and Jose Coceres.
Like you and me, they all love golf, and the country that lets them play it freely.
Confident Lincicome lurking after 54 holes at Founders
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.”
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.
Returning Park grabs 54-hole Founders lead
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.
“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.”
Joh on St. Patrick's ace: Go broke buying green beers
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).
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.
Davies, 54, still thinks she can win, dreams of HOF
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.
“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.