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.

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What's in the bag: CareerBuilder winner Rahm

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 10:37 pm

Jon Rahm defeated Andrew Landry in a playoff to earn his second PGA Tour title at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Here's what's in his bag:

Driver: TaylorMade M4 (9.5 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Fairway wood: TaylorMade M3 (19 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Irons: TaylorMade P790 (3), P750 (4-PW), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Wedges: TaylorMade Milled Grind (52, 56 degrees), Milled Grind Hi-Toe (60 degrees), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Putter: TaylorMade Spider Tour Red

Ball: TaylorMade TP5x

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Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 9:45 pm

Curtis Strange knows a thing or two about winning golf tournaments, and based on his reaction to the CareerBuilder Challenge playoff on Sunday, it’s safe to say he did things a little differently while picking up 17 PGA Tour victories in his Hall-of-Fame career.

While Jon Rahm and Andrew Landry were “battling” through four extra holes, Strange, 62, tweeted his issues with the duo’s constant chit-chat and friendly banter down the stretch at La Quinta Country Club, where Rahm eventually came out on top.

The two-time U.S. Open champ then engaged with some followers to explain his point a little more in depth.

So, yeah ... don't think he's changing his perspective on this topic anytime soon ever.

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Randall's Rant: The Euros won't just roll over

By Randall MellJanuary 22, 2018, 9:36 pm

The Ryder Cup may not be the King Kong of golf events yet, but you can hear the biennial international team event thumping its chest a full eight months out.

As anticipation for this year’s big events goes, there is more buzz about Europe’s bid to hold off a rejuvenated American effort in Paris in September than there is about the Masters coming up in April.

Thank Europe’s phenomenal success last weekend for that.

And Rory McIlroy’s impassioned remarks in Abu Dhabi.

And the provocative bulletin board material a certain Sports Illustrated writer provided the Europeans a couple months ago, with a stinging assault on the Euro chances that read like an obituary.

McIlroy was asked in a news conference before his 2018 debut last week what he was most excited about this year.

The Ryder Cup topped his list.

Though McIlroy will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National come April, he talked more about the Ryder Cup than he did any of the game’s major championships.

When asked a follow-up about the American team’s resurgence after a task-force overhaul and the injection of young, new star power, McIlroy nearly started breaking down the matchup. He talked about the young Americans and how good they are.

“Yeah, the Americans have been, obviously, very buoyant about their chances and whatever, but it’s never as easy as that. ... The Ryder Cup’s always close,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ll have a great team, and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”

McIlroy may have been talking about Alan Shipnuck’s bold prediction after the American Presidents Cup rout last fall.

Or similar assertions from TV analysts.

“The Ryder Cup is dead – you just don’t know it yet,” Shipnuck wrote. “One of the greatest events in sport is on the verge of irrelevancy. The young, talented, hungry golfers from the United States, benefitting from the cohesive leadership of the Task Force era, are going to roll to victory in 2018 in Paris.”

European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn won’t find words that will motivate the Euros more than that as he watches his prospective players jockey to make the team.

And, boy, did they jockey last weekend.

The Euros dominated across the planet, not that they did it with the Ryder Cup as some rallying cry, because they didn’t. But it was a heck of an encouraging start to the year for Bjorn to witness.

Spain’s Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour, England’s Tommy Fleetwood started the week at Abu Dhabi paired with American and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and won the European Tour event, and Spain’s Sergio Garcia won the Singapore Open in a rout on the Asian Tour.

And McIlroy looked close to being in midseason form, tying for third in his first start in three months.

Yes, it’s only January, and the Ryder Cup is still a long way off, with so much still to unfold, but you got an early sense from McIlroy how much defending European turf will mean to him and the Euros in Paris in September.

The Masters is great theater, the U.S. Open a rigorous test, The Open and the PGA Championship historically important, too, but the Ryder Cup touches a nerve none of those do.

The Ryder Cup stokes more fervor, provokes more passion and incites more vitriol than any other event in golf.

More bulletin board material, too.

Yeah, it’s a long way off, but you can already hear the Ryder Cup’s King Kong like footsteps in its distant approach. Watching how the American and European teams come together will be an ongoing drama through spring and summer.

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Quail Hollow officials promise players easier conditions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 22, 2018, 9:14 pm

Quail Hollow Club - a staple on the PGA Tour since 2003 - debuted as a longer, tougher version of itself at last year’s PGA Championship, receiving mixed reviews from players.

The course played to a lengthened 7,600 yards at last year’s PGA and a 73.46 stroke average, the toughest course in relation to par on Tour in 2017. As a result, it left some players less than excited to return to the Charlotte, N.C.-area layout later this spring for the Wells Fargo Championship.

It’s that lack of enthusiasm that led officials at Quail Hollow to send a video to players saying, essentially, that the course players have lauded for years will be back in May.

The video, which includes Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris and runs nearly five minutes, begins with an explanation of how the first hole, which played as a 524-yard par 4 at the PGA, will play much shorter at the Wells Fargo Championship.

“I had a number of my friends who were playing in the tournament tell me that tee was better suited as a lemonade stand,” Harris joked of the new tee box on the fourth hole. “I doubt we’ll ever see that tee used again in competition.”

Harris also explained that the greens, which became too fast for some, will be “softer” for this year’s Wells Fargo Championship.