Wilkes-Krier among those living the dream at Oakmont

By Ryan LavnerJune 15, 2016, 2:20 pm

OAKMONT, Pa. – The beauty of the U.S. Open isn’t in its brutish challenge, with its bowling-lane fairways, shoe-swallowing rough and hit-and-hope greens. It’s in stories like Patrick Wilkes-Krier.

This is golf’s most democratic major – shoot the scores, play the U.S. Open – and so Wilkes-Krier, 32, is here at Oakmont, signing up for practice rounds alongside Jordan Spieth and Jason Day, realizing a dream that he thought he’d abandoned nearly two years ago.

“It’s so weird that I’ve ended up here,” he said.

Wilkes-Krier played collegiately at Ball State, where he enjoyed a solid but unspectacular career. After graduating in 2006, he moved to Orlando, Fla., and set up a home base for him and his future wife, Whitney.

“I moved her into the apartment and said, ‘OK, gotta go,’ and left for a month to play golf,” he said. “That was a real shock to her.”

But that was their routine for years: Wilkes-Krier drove his 2004 Subaru (260,000 miles) all across the country, played two or three weeks each month from February through September and kept in touch through calls, texts and video chats.

“It felt unusual to spend our engagement and first few years of marriage loving each other from a distance,” Whitney said.

Dropping anywhere from $800 to $1,500 on tournament entry fees, Patrick needed to play well just to break even on what was then known as the Hooters Tour. Whitney stayed home, bankrolling their lives while working for a publishing company.

“I kept playing because I felt like I was improving and getting closer,” he said. “But it was exhausting. Mentally, it’s just the feeling of going several weeks of playing not well enough, and it just drains you.”  

Patrick, whose brother is party-anthem recording artist Andrew W.K., never earned much – maybe a few hundred thousand over an eight-year career, he figured – and that added stress not only to his new marriage, but also to his relationships with family members who were helping fund his dream.  

“They were happy to do it,” he said, “but year after year after year, it just creates a rift. It makes it challenging on everyone.”

Whitney quit her job in 2012 to join Patrick on the road. The vibe at mini-tour events is decidedly low-key – players typically change their shoes in the parking lot – and yet there was Whitney, carrying Patrick’s sticks and talking through his decisions, despite having no golf experience. If nothing else, the time together made the grind more tolerable.

“He was always outplaying a lot of the people he was with,” Whitney said. “There’s just a wall that they can’t break through to get to the higher level.”

And so finally, in fall 2014, Patrick and Whitney sat down and discussed their options. They were expecting their first child. They’d been on the mini-tour circuit for nearly a decade. And the PGA Tour had recently made changes to Q-School, pushing a PGA Tour card further down the line.  

“He looked at me,” Whitney said, “and he had these sad eyes and he said, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’”

“Eight years on the mini-tours, that’s about as long as anyone should be out there, maybe longer,” Patrick said. “I didn’t feel like by stopping playing I wasn’t giving myself a chance. I had a good chance at it.”

And so he reached out to Dave Kendall, who runs the Kendall Academy at Miles of Golf outside of Ann Arbor, Mich., where Patrick was born and raised. Soon, Patrick took over the elite junior program, where he taught and mentored middle- and high-school kids. These days, his greatest thrill isn’t shooting 65 – it’s watching a 14-year-old shave 25 shots over the course of a year.

Patrick gives lessons all day and works on his game only when he has a few spare minutes. Occasionally, he’ll tee it up on the weekend, with some of his most promising students, but he says he keeps his game sharp simply by teaching – by thinking about the swing and how to approach a round. “My practice is a lot more efficient now,” he said.

Wilkes-Krier didn’t attempt to qualify for the 2015 U.S. Open – his daughter, Azalea, was born the day after the local qualifier – but decided to try again this spring to see how he stacked up.

In May, he breezed through locals for only the second time in his career. Two days before sectionals, he was boogieing on the dance floor at his sister-in-law’s wedding in Bloomington, Ind. Early the next morning, he drove three hours to Springfield, Ohio, where he played a practice round in advance of a 59-man qualifier that offered four spots and attracted PGA Tour winners Tony Finau, Troy Merritt, Matt Jones and Brian Stuard.

“On paper, it shouldn’t have been the time,” he said. “I had a very small chance. I just played well that day.”

A year and a half after shelving his goal of making the Tour, after transitioning from a player to a teacher, Wilkes-Krier qualified for his first U.S. Open. Go figure.  

Tyler Raber during Monday's practice round at the U.S. Open (USGA/Darren Carroll)

Remarkably, there are other stories just like Wilkes-Krier’s here at Oakmont.

Last winter, after playing seven years in Canada, Matt Marshall, 31, gave up the dream and worked at his family’s vineyard in Oregon. Despite playing only sparingly this spring, he qualified for the Open.

Tyler Raber, 26, had no status on any major or mini tour, so he agreed to become an assistant coach at his alma mater, UC Davis, and put an August deadline on his dream. He qualified for the U.S. Open, too.

Of course, come Thursday, this Open will be all about Jordan and Jason and Rory, about history and legacy and America’s most daunting test. It’s easy to forget about the dreamers, who needed only two qualifiers – really, two days – to view their stagnant careers a little differently.

At Oakmont, Wilkes-Krier has reconnected with some of his friends from his mini-tour days, guys like Patton Kizzire and Robert Streb and Billy Hurley III, the ones who made it big. And with a former Kendall Academy student, David Szymanski, on the bag this week, Wilkes-Krier has already played practice rounds with Spieth and Day.

“He called me, like, ‘OH MY GOSH, you’ll never believe this!’” Whitney said.

Indeed, so many aspects of this week have been surprising, from the glamorous practice-round groupings to the call Whitney received Tuesday reminding her that, as the wife of an Open participant, she could schedule a few hours in the spa. It’s their first glimpse into a world they spent eight years pursuing.

“Each moment, there’s more stuff to soak in,” Patrick said. “It’s an experience you can’t even dream about.”

Editor's note: Wilkes-Krier is a Golf Channel Academy instructor as part of the Kendall Academy of Golf.

Getty Images

McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.

McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the trophy was out of reach.

Getty Images

Fleetwood rallies to defend Abu Dhabi title

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 12:48 pm

The 2018 European Tour season has begun just as the 2017 one ended: with Tommy Fleetwood's name atop the standings.

Facing the most difficult conditions of the week, Fleetwood charged down the stretch to shoot a 7-under 65 in the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, good enough for a two-shot win and a successful title defense.

Abu Dhabi was the start of Fleetwood's resurgence a year ago, the first of two European Tour victories en route to the season-long Race to Dubai title. This time around the Englishman started the final round two shots off the lead but rallied with six birdies over his final nine holes to reclaim the trophy.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fleetwood was five shots behind countryman Ross Fisher when he made the turn, but he birdied the par-5 10th and then added four birdies in a five-hole stretch from Nos. 12-16. The decisive shot came on the final hole, when his pitch from the left rough nestled within a few feet of the hole for a closing birdie.

Fleetwood's 22-under total left him two shots ahead of Fisher and four shots clear of Rory McIlroy and Matthew Fitzpatrick. After entering the week ranked No. 18, Fleetwood is expected to move to at least No. 12 in the world when the new rankings are published.

Getty Images

Garcia cruises to five-shot win in Singapore

By Associated PressJanuary 21, 2018, 12:10 pm

SINGAPORE - Sergio Garcia played 27 holes on the last day without dropping a shot to win the Singapore Open by five strokes Sunday in an ominous display of his newfound self-belief as he prepares to defend his Masters title.

Still brimming with confidence after claiming his first major title at Augusta National last year, Garcia started his new season with a runaway victory at the Sentosa Golf Club, finishing at 14-under 270.

Returning to the course just after dawn to complete his third round after play was suspended on Saturday because of lightning strikes, Garcia finished his last nine holes in 4 under for a round of 66 to take a one-shot lead into the final round.

With organizers desperate to avert the constant threat of more bad weather and finish the tournament on time, Garcia promptly returned to the first tee shortly after and fired a flawless 3-under 68, cruising to victory with 10 straight pars as his rivals floundered in the stifling humidity.

''It may have looked easy, but it wasn't easy. You still have to hit a lot of good shots out there,'' Garcia said. ''It's always great to start with a win, to do it here at this golf course against a good field in Asia on conditions that weren't easy. Hopefully I can ride on this momentum.''

Garcia's closest rivals at the end were Japan's Satoshi Kodaira (71) and South African Shaun Norris (70). Both birdied the last hole to share second spot but neither was ever close enough on the last day to challenge the leader.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

''I could not reach Sergio. I was thinking, 12 or 13 under for the win, but he went beyond that,'' Kodaira said.

Jazz Janewattananond (71) and his fellow Thai Danthai Bonnma (73) finished equal fourth at 8 under, earning themselves a spot in this year's British Open, while American Sean Crocker, who was given an invitation to the event after turning pro late last year, also won a place at Carnoustie by finishing in a tie for sixth.

Garcia made just three bogeys in 72 holes and his victory provided the 38-year-old with the 33rd title of his professional career and his sixth on the Asian Tour.

He has also won three titles in the last 12 months, including the Masters, and his game looks to be in better shape now than it was a year ago.

He credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for Augusta National because of the steamy conditions and the testing stop-start nature of the tournament, which is regularly stopped because of inclement weather.

Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore a year ago, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the next week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later.

"I'm extremely happy with how the week went. It was a tough day and a tough week, with the stopping and going. Fortunately, the weather held on. Still, it was hard to play 27 holes under this heat and I can't wait to get a cold shower,'' Garcia said. ''I came with some good confidence and wishing that I will play well. I hit the ball solid the whole week and didn't miss many shots.''

Getty Images

Kelly beats Monty with two-shot swing on final hole

By Associated PressJanuary 21, 2018, 3:21 am

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii – Jerry Kelly made an 18-foot birdie putt on the final hole, Colin Montgomerie missed a 6-footer for par and Kelly turned a one-shot deficit into a victory Saturday in the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.

After Kelly drove it well right into lava rocks on the par-4 16th, leading to bogey and giving Montgomerie the lead, Montgomerie made a mistake with his tee shot on the last, finding a fairway bunker. Montgomerie's approach went over the green and after Kelly converted his birdie, the 54-year-old Scot jammed his par putt well past the hole.

Full-field scores from the Mitsubishi Electric Championship

It was the third win on the over-50 tour for the 51-year-old Kelly, who finished tied for 14th last week at the PGA Tour's Sony Open in Honolulu. That gave him confidence as he hopped over to the Big Island for his tournament debut at Hualalai. The limited-field event includes winners from last season, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.

Kelly closed with a 6-under 66 for a three-day total of 18-under 198. Montgomerie shot 69. David Toms shot 67 and finished two shots back, and Miguel Angel Jimenez was another stroke behind after a 66.

Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, closed with a 70 to finish at 10 under.