Hit it hard, Champ: Amateur crushing and contending

By Ryan LavnerJune 16, 2017, 11:13 pm

ERIN, Wis. – In the summer of 2010, as a favor to one of his friends, Sean Foley agreed to meet with a relatively unknown 15-year-old from Sacramento, Calif., named Cameron Champ. Foley set aside some time on the range at Orange County National, and what he saw for the next hour changed both his short- and long-term plans.

“I called my wife and said, ‘What do I have scheduled tomorrow?’” Foley recalled. “She said, ‘Lessons from 8-5,’ and I told her, ‘Cancel it.’ I had spent that first hour just in awe.”

The sound. The trajectory. The mind-blowing numbers on TrackMan: a 340-yard carry, 131-mph clubhead speed and ball speed that topped 190 mph. (For context, Dustin Johnson’s swing and ball speed are 121 and 186 mph, respectively.) Seven years later, there is an almost mythical quality to Champ’s length.

There was the round with teammates the week before he started at Texas A&M. “There was water 360 or 370 yards from the tee,” said Champ’s former teammate, Jake Goodman. “Everyone else was laying back, but he pounded one 10 yards short of the water. I’m playing with two seniors, and we were up on the green. Looking back, they’re like, There’s no way in hell that’s his drive. He must have hit it in the trees and punched out. There’s no way. So he gets up there and makes birdie. He goes to the next hole, and they wait because they want to see if he can actually drive it that far. He absolutely killed one, and they looked at each other and said, ‘Damn, that probably was his drive last hole.’”

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There was the round at the 2011 Ping Invitational. “We were recruiting someone else, and Cameron was paired with him,” Aggies coach J.T. Higgins said. “I called my assistant coach and said, ‘Um, we’re recruiting the wrong guy.’ He was hitting it sometimes 80 to 100 yards by the guy we were recruiting. I said, ‘This is unbelievable.’”

And there was the practice round on Monday with Rory McIlroy and Louis Oosthuizen here at Erin Hills. On the par-5 first hole, Champ coiled his lower body and sent a low bullet 30 yards past the similarly built McIlroy, who is regarded as one of golf’s biggest boppers – for now. “He couldn’t get over it,” Foley said. “He said, ‘This is unbelievable!’ It’s not even up in the air and it’s going that far!”

For Tour players unfamiliar with amateur golf, Champ, who turned 22 on Thursday, has been one of the week’s biggest revelations, as he nearly shelled the TV satellite trucks set up on the back end of the range.

“The future of the game,” Ernie Els said.

The present, too, because Champ has bashed his way into the top 10 of this 117th U.S. Open. His 12-foot birdie putt on the final green Friday capped a 3-under 69 and left him just two shots back heading into the weekend.

“He is just super long off the tee and he’s always in the fairway,” said Xander Schauffele, who was grouped with Champ for the first two rounds. “With that combination, this course is incredibly set up for him. I’m not the shortest guy, and I can’t even sniff where he’s hitting the ball.”

Was this a surprise? Well, sure, you can never predict how a college senior will react during his first experience on a big stage. But there were signs earlier this week that if Champ could stay calm, he was not only going to make the cut but also contend at a massive ballpark that rewards strong driving.

“Rory was continuously telling him, ‘You’re hitting it as far as us. When you realize how good you are, you’re going to be able to do some damage out here,’” said Goodman, who is on Champ’s bag this week. “That can do nothing but grow your confidence. He feels like he belongs out here.”

Champ was first exposed to golf at 18 months. He was taught the game by his grandfather, Mack, who in the 1950s, as a black man in south Texas, could caddie with his two brothers but not play the course. That changed once he went into the military, and he developed into a decent player who could consistently break 80.

“We just told Cameron to swing hard,” said his father, Jeff. “When you do that, you build up some fast-twitch muscle fibers over time, and now he can move it.”

Added Foley: “It’s a physical skill that’s at the level of a Usain Bolt, where it’s just so much faster than the next guy.”

Creating all of that torque puts immense pressure on the spine, of course, and Champ, generously listed at 6 feet, developed two bulging disks and a cracked vertebrae before starting at Texas A&M. He withdrew from his first college tournament, tried unsuccessfully to gut out two more starts, and spent most of three semesters on the sidelines.

“He was really disappointed,” Jeff Champ said. “He put so many years into it and then got hurt. I think he was getting really frustrated.”

Foley tweaked Champ’s posture and how he attacked the ball, and over the past several months he has reported no issues. “We treated it as it’s great that it happened now instead of the PGA Tour,” Foley said.

This past season for the Aggies, Champ won once and finished in the top 10 in six other events. It’s odd, but for a player who routinely pounds 350-yard drives, Champ often is too conservative on the course. Higgins has pushed his star player to become more aggressive, to use his driver as a weapon, instead of trying to avoid trouble because of his prodigious length. “You’ve got the green light,” Higgins told him. “Hit driver wherever you want.”

That’s been Champ’s strategy this week at Erin Hills, where he leads the 156-player field in driving distance, at 339.3 yards, about seven ahead of Johnson – to the surprise of no one who has seen this kid play. “Swing hard” was his grandpa’s advice, and so Cameron does.

Now 76, Mack Champ is back in Northern California, watching the TV coverage with tears in his eyes, his family’s story having come full circle.

“It’s an amazing story,” Jeff Champ said, “the gentleman who couldn’t play golf, and now his grandson is playing in the U.S. Open.”

With this type of game-changing power, it definitely won’t be his last.

Spieth, Thomas headline winter break trip to Cabo

By Grill Room TeamDecember 15, 2017, 1:05 am

Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth. Really good at golf. Really good at vacationing.

With #SB2K18 still months away, Thomas and Spieth headlined a vacation to Cabo San Lucas, and this will shock you but it looks like they had a great time.

Spring break veteran Smylie Kaufman joined the party, as did Thomas' roommate, Tom Lovelady, who continued his shirtless trend.

The gang played all the hits, including shoeless golf in baketball jerseys and late nights with Casamigos tequila.

Image via tom.lovelady on Instagram.

In conclusion, it's still good to be these guys.

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Awards season: Handing out the 2017 Rexys

By Rex HoggardDecember 14, 2017, 7:00 pm

After careful consideration and an exhaustive review of 2017 we present The Rexys, a wildly incomplete and arbitrary line up following one of the most eventful years in golf.

 There will be omissions – just keep your calls, concerns and even e-mails to yourself. We appreciate your patronage, but not your feedback.

It’s Not You, It’s Me Award. You know the deal: You can’t be a part of two until you’re a better one; but on this front it’s really just a desire to find a better two.

It was a tough year for caddies, and not just any caddies. In June, Phil Mickelson split with longtime bagman Jim “Bones” Mackay. Both player and caddie cited the need for “change,” but the move reverberated throughout the game.

“The fairytale is over,” mused one caddie when told of the high-profile split.

In the wake of the Lefty/Bones break, Rory McIlroy split with his caddie J.P Fitzgerald, and Jason Day replaced looper/swing coach Colin Swatton on his bag. It all proves yet again that there are only two kinds of caddies, those who have been fired and those who are about to be fired.

Run for the Rose Cup. Sergio Garcia got the green jacket, a lifetime exemption to the game’s most coveted member-member and a long-awaited major, but Justin Rose took home the slightly less prestigious “Rose Cup.”

Following a frenzied afternoon at Augusta National in April, Rose lost to Garcia on the first playoff hole, but he won so much more with his honesty and class.

“You're going to win majors and you're going to lose majors, but you've got to be willing to lose them,” Rose figured following the final round. “You've got to put yourself out there. You've got to hit the top of the leaderboard. There's a lot of pressure out there and if you're not willing to enjoy it, then you're not ready to win these tournaments. I loved it out there.”

Few have made losing look so dignified and fewer still are as easy to root for.

Half-Empty Cup. It was the perfect setting, with sweeping views of the Manhattan skyline and the promise of the Tristate masses descending on this fall’s Presidents Cup.

If only all those rowdy New Yorkers had something to cheer.

For the sixth time in the last seven matches, the U.S. team rolled to a victory of at least three points. This particular edition was even in danger of ending on Saturday afternoon thanks to a particularly dominant performance by a young American squad led by Steve Stricker.

Officials spoke of the purity of the competition and the attention the ’17 cup generated, but however you spin the 19-11 rout, this cup is half empty.

Enigma Award. The actual hardware is simply an oversized question mark and was sent directly to Tiger Woods’ South Florida compound following the most curious of seasons.

While it’s become customary in recent years to consider the uncertain path that awaits the 14-time major winner, this most recent calendar brought an entirely new collection of questions following fusion surgery on his lower back in April, his arrest for DUI on Memorial Day and, finally, a glimmer of hope born from his tie for ninth at the Hero World Challenge earlier this month.

When will he play again? Can he compete against the current generation of world-beaters? Can his body withstand the rigors of a full PGA Tour schedule? Should Jim Furyk make him a captain’s pick now or wait to see if he should be driving a vice captain’s golf cart instead?

Little is certain when it comes to Woods, and the over-sized question mark goes to ... the guy in red and black.

After Further Review Chalice. In April, Lexi Thompson endured a heartbreaking loss at the ANA Inspiration, the byproduct of a surreal ruling that arrived a day late via a viewer e-mail and cost the would-be winner a major championship.

The entire event was so unsavory that the USGA and R&A made not one but two alterations to the rules and created a “working group” to avoid similar snafus in the future.

That working group – it turns out the U.S. Ryder Cup team has some sort of copyright on “task force” – initially issued a decision that introduced a “reasonable judgment” and a “naked eye” standard to video reviews, and last week the rule makers kept the changes coming.

The new protocols on video review will now include an official to monitor tournament broadcasts and ended the practice of allowing fans to call in, or in this case e-mail, possible infractions to officials. The USGA and R&A also eliminated the two-stroke penalty for players who sign incorrect scorecards when the player is unaware of the penalty.

While all this might be a step in the right direction, it does nothing to change Thompson’s fate. The AFR Chalice won’t change the harsh reality, but at least it will serve as a reminder of how she helped altered the rulemaking landscape.

Nothing Runs Like a Deere Award. Nothing gets fans fired up like officials turning fields of fescue rough into hay on the eve of a major championship, and the USGA’s decision to do some 11th-hour trimming at Erin Hills in June certainly caught many by surprise.

Officials said the nip/tuck on four holes was in reaction to a particularly foreboding forecast that never materialized, and the maintenance drew the ire of some players.

“We have 60 yards from left line to right line,” Rory McIlroy said. “You’ve got 156 of the best players in the world here; if we can’t hit it within that avenue, you might as well pack your bags and go home.”

The record low scoring at the U.S. Open – winner Brooks Koepka finished with a 16-under total – didn’t help ease the fervor and had some questioning whether the softer side of the USGA has gone a bit too far?

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Podcast: Daly takes big pride in 'Little John'

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 14, 2017, 5:28 pm

John Daly is a two-time major champion, but the newest trophy in his household belongs to someone else.

That’s because Daly’s son, 14-year-old Little John “LJ” Daly, rallied to capture an IJGT junior golf event over the weekend. The younger Daly birdied the first extra hole to win a five-person playoff at Harbour Town Golf Links, site of the PGA Tour’s RBC Heritage.

Daly recently sat down for a Golf Channel podcast to describe what it’s like to cheer for his son and PNC Father-Son Challenge partner, share the unique challenge presented by the upcoming Diamond Resorts Invitational and reflect on some of the notable highs of a career that has now spanned more than 25 years.

Sneds starts slowly in Masters invite bid

By Will GrayDecember 14, 2017, 4:22 pm

Brandt Snedeker flew halfway around the world in search of a Masters invite, but after one round of the Indonesian Masters it appears he'll likely return home empty-handed.

Snedeker made only two birdies during his opening round in Indonesia, shooting an even-par 72 that left him in a tie for 77th and 10 shots behind leader Justin Rose. This is the final OWGR-rated event of 2017, and as a result it has drawn several notable entrants, including Snedeker, who hope to crack the top 50 in the world rankings by year's end to secure a trip to Augusta National.

Full-field scores from the Indonesian Masters

Snedeker started the year ranked No. 28, but after missing five months because of injury he entered the week ranked No. 51 and is projected to slip even further by the end of the month. As a result, he likely needs a top-3 finish in order to secure a return to the Masters, which he has missed only once since 2007.

World No. 55 Dylan Frittelli also struggled, shooting a 4-over 76 in the opening round, while No. 56 Kiradech Aphibarnrat is tied for 14th at 4 under. Yusaku Miyazato, currently 58th in the world, is tied for ninth and five shots behind Rose.

Should Snedeker and the other hopefuls fail to crack the top 50 by the end of the year, two paths to the Masters remain: win a full-point event on the PGA Tour in early 2018 or be inside the top 50 in the world rankings when the final cutoff is made on March 25.