Monday Scramble: Open season, on everybody

By Ryan Lavner, Will GrayJune 19, 2017, 5:05 pm

Brooks Koepka pounds Erin Hills into submission, the USGA gets one right (at last!), Johnny stands by his 63, Rory McIlroy owns Elk and more in this week's edition of the Monday Scramble:

Koepka was a fitting winner at a U.S. Open unlike any of the previous 116 editions.

Erin Hills featured the widest fairways in U.S. Open history, and they were made even more spacious with three days of light winds and heavy rain that took much of the fire out of a course designed to play firm and fast.

Coming into the week, the layout was thought to be a bomber’s paradise, and sure enough Koepka treated every tee as his own personal launching pad. He wailed away on driver, never hitting more than a 7-iron into a par 4 for the first three rounds, and became the first player to hit more than 80 percent of his fairways and greens. It was a clinical performance.

But above all, this major will be remembered for the bevy of low scores, including Koepka’s record-tying 16 under total.

No, this wasn't your father's U.S. Open, but rest assured the punishment will return next year.

1. It’s impossible to overstate how absurdly good Koepka’s ball-striking was last week.

For four days at a U.S. Open, he missed only seven fairways and 10 greens. 

Throw in a hot putter, and he became the first U.S. Open winner since 2003 to rank in the top 5 in both greens in regulation and putting.

2. Did watching Koepka overpower a golf course feel familiar? Because it should have. He’s basically DJ Lite.

Golf’s new bash brothers have become inseparable, living in the same area in South Florida, working with the same trainer, using the same swing coach, and even sharing the same chef while on the road.

Labeled for years as an underachiever, Johnson, 32, has become a mentor of sorts for Koepka, 27. The world No. 1 even called Koepka on the eve of the final round to remind his pal of a few keys – namely patience and process.

Pressed for details, Koepka laughed. “There’s probably not that much that’s interesting, to be honest. It was a long phone call for us – it was like two minutes.” 

3. Koepka became the seventh consecutive first-time major winner – the second-longest streak in the modern era – and it’s a troublesome trend as the sport’s popularity drifts back toward the norm in this post-Tiger era.

TV ratings for the final round were the second-lowest in tournament history.

Yes, these types of things are cyclical, but individual sports are most successful when there is a dominant figure. Even though major triumphs by Jason Day, Sergio Garcia and Koepka were satisfying for the hardcore fans, their breakthroughs merely reinforced that this is an era of competitive parity, at least in the game's biggest events. 

4. On Sunday afternoon, Brandt Snedeker was asked about his Ryder Cup partner’s ceiling as a player.

“I don’t see any reason why he can’t be a multiple major winner,” he said. “People don’t realize he’s got the total game: short game, putting, the way he hits it.”

He did issue a word of caution about his potential, however.

“One thing he is going to have to learn is when to rein it in,” Snedeker said. “But when he’s on like this, hitting driver the way he does, it doesn’t matter if you don’t pick your spots because he’s hitting sand wedge.” 

5. Brian Harman and Rickie Fowler offered an interesting contrast in perspective after falling short at Erin Hills.

Harman had every reason to look for silver linings after his tie for second – after all, he didn’t even have a top-25 in any of his previous major appearances.

Fowler, meanwhile, has the most major top-5s of any player without a win since 2010, and he should be growing tired of watching someone else hoist the hardware.

Or not.

Harman: “I don’t believe in moral victories. I had an opportunity today and I didn’t get it done.”

Fowler: “You have to measure success in different ways, not just winning, because that doesn’t happen a whole lot. … You kind of have to say, ‘Hey, it’s a major.’”

That's a revealing glimpse into each player's psyche, no?

6. There were plenty of red figures at Erin Hills, but the top players in the world found nothing but carnage.

Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day all missed the cut, marking the first time since the creation of the OWGR in 1986 that the top three players in the world missed the cut at the same major.

And frankly, it wasn’t really close. McIlroy and Day shot themselves out of it before the opening round was over, while DJ never got things on track after flying into town late after the birth of his second son.

Erin Hills' sprawling fairways and burly length would have seemed to favor each of them, and McIlroy’s “pack your bags” fescue analysis got plenty of pre-tournament attention. But ultimately a quirky venue got the best of all three, who likely will be happy to see the tournament shift back to more traditional venues for the next decade-plus.

Now, if the oh-fer happens again next month at Royal Birkdale ... 

7. That sound you hear is USGA chief executive Mike Davis taking a big sigh of relief.

Erin Hills may not have been a home run, but for the first time since Pinehurst, the folks in blue blazers left the 72nd green without any egg on their face.

After the greens at Chambers Bay and the rules fiasco at Oakmont, a little chirping about low scores and wide fairways must seem like an oasis in the desert. And while there were some double takes at Koepka's 16-under total, the course received largely favorable reviews from the field.

8. It was apparent, however, that the USGA went the cautious route with this major.

Designed for the usual 20-mph winds to rip through the treeless property, the 50-yard-wide fairways posed little challenge to those who had control of their tee shots.

Criticized in the past for pushing green speeds to the edge, the USGA kept the greens at Erin Hills at a manageable pace, helping eliminate some of the pre-tournament pace-of-play concern.

The course can be tipped out at 8,348 yards, and yet it might not have been all that outrageous to play the Open from the back boxes. The field averaged more than 302 yards off the tee, led by amateur Cameron Champ at 334 yards. In all, 14 players averaged more than 315 yards for the week as the course played nowhere near its sticker-shock yardage.

That the USGA and R&A – which recently concluded that the distance increase in golf has been negligible – can even consider an 8,000-yard major should be a red flag about where the game is headed. 

9. Johnny Miller is no longer on the call for the U.S. Open, but leave it to the NBC Sports analyst to offer the most polarizing opinion of the week. asked for his thoughts after Justin Thomas’ 9-under 63 in the third round pushed aside Miller and set the record for the lowest score in relation to par at the U.S. Open.

Miller made it clear that he still views his 8-under 63 at Oakmont in the 1973 Open as one of the greatest rounds in the history of the sport, even if it’s no longer the benchmark at the Open. He criticized the wide fairways at Erin Hills and said the Open’s low scores made it feel like the “Milwaukee Open.”

“Nine under is incredible with U.S. Open pressure,” he said, “but it isn’t a U.S. Open course that I’m familiar with the way it was set up.”

Fans on social media seemed split by his comments. There were some who said that Miller was right, that his round came on a more difficult golf course in more difficult conditions and with more at stake. And others thought he was just a bitter loon who was typically ungracious.

10. Does Johnny have a point? Well, when judging the quality of these U.S. Open rounds, history likely will still favor Miller.

With his closing 63 in 1973, Miller gained 10.8 strokes on the field, and there were only seven rounds under par that day.

Thomas’ round was nine strokes better than the field average, on a day when 32 players broke par.

But Miller earned the decisive point in the argument with this: his 63 propelled him to victory, while Thomas' final-round 75 dropped him into a tie for ninth.

11. With nary a storm in sight during the opening round, the U.S. Open came and went without Phil Mickelson for the first time since 1993.

Mickelson didn’t receive the lengthy weather delay he needed to make the cross-country trek from his daughter’s graduation in California, a jaunt that always appeared to be a long-shot at best. Lefty took it down to the wire, sending his caddie to scout the course and waiting until hours before his tee time to withdraw, but ultimately his spot went to alternate Roberto Diaz.

Mickelson will turn 48 during the final round at Shinnecock, and we’re now reaching the point where a U.S. Open win for Lefty would be largely unprecedented in the history books.

12. The last major included a playoff between two Europeans, but this time around the Euros were almost absent.

England's Tommy Fleetwood took fourth-place honors, but he was the only Euro to crack the top 15 on a leaderboard coated with red, white and blue. Paul Casey, who held a share of the 36-hole lead, faded to 26th over the weekend while McIlroy, Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson all missed the cut.

Steve Elkington is usually wrong about most things on Twitter, but rarely is he so off-base as this.

After McIlroy missed the cut at Erin Hills, the Worst Tweeter in Golf suggested that the four-time major champion was “bored” playing golf and that he was content with his major haul and hefty bank account.

Ring the bell. 

Whoa! Landed a haymaker there. Elk is stumbling around the ring (as usual), but let's see how he responds ... 

OK, he's back, and he appears to have steadied himself long enough to fire off another illiterate tweet:

Second-round TKO. Elk remains winless on Twitter.

This week's award winners ... 

In Need of a Massage: Everyone who attended the Erin Hills Open. Fans who went all 18 walked roughly 30,000 steps – or the equivalent of 15 miles – on the sprawling, linksy property. Yowsers. 

Sorry ’Bout That: Jonathan Randolph. Tasked with keeping Thomas’ score during his historic third round, the Mississippi boy couldn’t fit the card into his back pocket and ended up ripping the bottom of it. “If that goes into the Hall of Fame and it’s all torn and jagged, they’re going to be wondering who in the world Jonathan Randolph is,” he said. 

NSFW: Adam Scott's putting. The former Masters champ had a few cringe-worthy misses from short range at Erin Hills, as his search for a post-anchoring solution continues.

PGA Tour-bound: Aaron Wise. The 2016 NCAA champion started 62-62 at the Web event in Wichita and boatraced the field, eventually winning by five to lock up his PGA Tour card for next season. He’s the next young stud who deserves our attention. 

Running Laps Around the Competition: Leona Maguire. The two-time NCAA Player of the Year won the Women’s British Amateur to continue her reign of terror. Fortunately for the rest of the amateurs, she only has one year left before she takes her game to the next level. 

Well Worth the Work: Local qualifiers. There were five players – Kevin Dougherty, Tyler Light, Jack Maguire, Jordan Niebrugge and Champ – who advanced through both stages of qualifying and made the cut at Erin Hills. It’s the fourth consecutive year that at least that many players have gone 3-for-3. 

Still On a Tear: Braden Thornberry. The NCAA champion and fourth-place finisher at St. Jude kept rolling at the prestigious Sunnehanna Amateur, which he won in a playoff. Can’t help but wonder how he would have fared at Erin Hills if he had qualified. 

If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It: Paul Casey. Yes, that is the Englishman’s wife, Pollyanna, who appears scantily clad not only on the back of his phone case, but also, apparently, on the inside of one of his suit jackets. 

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Top 3 players in the world. Take your pick as to which player’s missed cut was the most disappointing – defending champion DJ, Rory on a rain-softened course, or Day and his excellent Open record. A terrible week for one-and-doners. Sigh. 

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Golf's Olympic format, qualifying process remain the same

By Rex HoggardMarch 19, 2018, 6:25 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Potential Olympic golfers for the 2020 Games in Tokyo were informed on Monday that the qualification process for both the men’s and women’s competitions will remain unchanged.

According to a memo sent to PGA Tour players, the qualification process begins on July 1, 2018, and will end on June 22, 2020, for the men, with the top 59 players from the Olympic Golf Rankings, which is drawn from the Official World Golf Ranking, earning a spot in Tokyo (the host country is assured a spot in the 60-player field). The women’s qualification process begins on July 8, 2018, and ends on June 29, 2020.

The format, 72-holes of individual stroke play, for the ’20 Games will also remain unchanged.

The ’20 Olympics will be held July 24 through Aug. 9, and the men’s competition will be played the week before the women’s event at Kasumigaseki Country Club.

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Webb granted U.S. Women's Open special exemption

By Will GrayMarch 19, 2018, 6:22 pm

Karrie Webb's streak of consecutive appearances at the U.S. Women's Open will continue this summer.

The USGA announced Monday that the 43-year-old Aussie has been granted a special exemption into this year's event, held May 31-June 3 at Shoal Creek in Alabama. Webb, a winner in both 2000 and 2001, has qualified for the event on merit every year since 2011 when her 10-year exemption for her second victory ended.

"As a past champion, I'm very grateful and excited to accept the USGA's special exemption into this year's U.S. Women's Open," Webb said in a release. "I have always loved competing in the U.S. Women's Open and being tested on some of the best courses in the country."

Webb has played in the tournament every year since 1996, the longest such active streak, meaning that this summer will mark her 23rd consecutive appearance. She has made the U.S. Women's Open cut each of the last 10 years, never finishing outside the top 50 in that span.

Webb's exemption is the first handed out by the USGA since 2016, when Se Ri Pak received an invite to play at CordeValle. Prior to that the two most recent special exemptions went to Juli Inkster (2013) and Laura Davies (2009). The highest finish by a woman playing on a special exemption came in 1994, when Amy Alcott finished sixth.

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Notah: Driver is Tiger's No. 1 pre-Masters concern

By Golf Channel DigitalMarch 19, 2018, 5:49 pm

Tiger Woods mounted a Sunday charge at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, sending shockwaves through Bay Hill when it looked as though he might finally claim PGA Tour victory No. 80.

But the charge came to an end at the par-5 16th, where Woods had missed wide-right three days in a row before going OB-left on Sunday en route to bogey.

Woods’ API performance featured just a handful of drivers each day, as firm and fast conditions allowed him to make frequent use of a 2-iron off the tee.

That strategy led to a second top-5 finish in as many weeks, but if Woods wants to win again, if he wants claim another major, he is going to sort out his issues with the big stick.

A guest Monday morning on the Dan Patrick Show, Golf Channel’s Notah Begay believes the driver will be a focus for Woods in his pre-Masters preparation.

“Project No. 1 over the next two weeks is going to be the driver. … Any time he has to turn a shot right to left with trouble on the left, he struggles a little bit,” Begay said.

“Off the sixth tee, off the ninth tee, there was some errant shots. And then we saw the really horrible tee shot yesterday at 16. He talked about in the post-round comments. He just didn’t commit to a shot, and the worst thing that a professional athlete can do to themselves to compromise performance is not commit.

“And so he made a terrible swing, and that’s the miss that is really difficult for him to recover from, because the majority of his misses are out to the right. So, when you eliminate one half of the golf course, you can really make your way around … a lot easier. When you have a two-way miss going, which sometimes creeps into his driver, it really makes it difficult to take out some of the trouble that you’re looking at when you’re standing on the tee box.

“So he has to focus in on trying to find some way to navigate Augusta National with the driver, because it’s a course that’s going to force you to hit driver.”

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McIlroy trails only Woods in Masters betting odds

By Will GrayMarch 19, 2018, 5:47 pm

After rallying for victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Rory McIlroy is once again among the betting favorites for the upcoming Masters.

McIlroy was available at 16/1 at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook last week, listed behind six other players. But after his three-shot win at Bay Hill, his odds were trimmed to 10/1, leaving him behind only betting favorite Tiger Woods.

Next month will mark McIlroy's fourth opportunity to close out the final leg of the career Grand Slam by slipping into a green jacket. Here's a look at the current betting odds, with the first round only 17 days away:

8/1: Tiger Woods

10/1: Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas

14/1: Jordan Spieth, Justin Rose

16/1: Jason Day, Jon Rahm

18/1: Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson

25/1: Paul Casey, Bubba Watson

30/1: Sergio Garcia, Tommy Fleetwood, Hideki Matsuyama

40/1: Henrik Stenson, Marc Leishman

50/1: Alex Noren

60/1: Matt Kuchar, Louis Oosthuizen, Adam Scott, Tyrrell Hatton, Thomas Pieters

80/1: Branden Grace, Brian Harman, Tony Finau, Charley Hoffman, Brooks Koepka, Patrick Cantlay

100/1: Zach Johnson, Rafael Cabrera-Bello, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Webb Simpson, Bryson DeChambeau, Xander Schauffele, Charl Schwartzel, Daniel Berger, Kevin Kisner