Contenders and Pretenders
Woods completed a slam of sorts by winning the last three majors of 2000 (U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship) before reeling in the second of his three Masters titles in 2001. An astounding accomplishment, but to be truly Grand most agree the four majors have to be won in the same calendar year.
Woods' quest for an unprecedented fifth straight major came to a screeching halt at last year's U.S. Open at Southern Hills, where he struggled to a 4-over 74 in the opening round and wound up tied for 12th. That disappointment began a streak of five consecutive finishes outside the top 10 for the world's top-ranked player, the longest such slump of his career.
Now, with six top-10s in just 10 starts in 2002, including wins at Bay Hill and Augusta (plus a European Tour victory in Germany), Woods is hitting his stride and looking to wrest the U.S. Open trophy from the arms of defending champion Retief Goosen.
Woods' game would seem to suit Bethpage. He's certainly long enough to have a big advantage on a number of the elevated greens at the Black, particularly the 15th.
However, a look at the stats will show that putting has been Woods' nemesis since the end of his dominating 2000 season. Ranked second on the PGA Tour in putting average two years ago, Woods dropped all the way to 102nd in 2001 and has since fallen even further, to 135th.
Since the Black is a par-70, Woods has two less par-5s to birdie or possibly even eagle. The fact is, par-70 courses have accounted for his four worst finishes in the U.S. Open and his three worst finishes in the PGA Championship. Not surprisingly, Woods captured a pair of PGAs and all three of his Masters titles on par-72 layouts, which have four par-5s.
Woods did finish third at the 1999 U.S. Open, which was held at the par-70 Pinehurst No. 2.
Phil Mickelson, No. 2 in the world behind Woods, earned his 20th career victory, and with it a lifetime exemption on the PGA Tour, in his first start of the season at the Bob Hope Classic. He's collected six top-10s since, including four third-place finishes in a five-week span. One of those thirds came at the Masters, giving him 15 top-10s in the majors without a victory.
The lefthander is due, to say the least. But even though he's been ranked high in putting over the last several years, Mickelson's stroke tends to let him down at important times in big events. On the other hand, sometimes it's his complete confidence in his shotmaking ability that gets him into trouble when he tries to pull off the impossible (see the par-5 16th at Bay Hill in March).
Two-time U.S. Open winner Ernie Els and his South African counterpart Goosen are third and fourth in the World Ranking, respectively. Each have posted multiple victories around the globe this season and are steely competitors with a great chance to add to their U.S. Open win totals.
Last year at Southern Hills, Goosen opened with a 66 and held at least a share of the lead the rest of the way in winning his first major championship. But the rest of the way included an 18-hole playoff with Mark Brooks necessitated by a comedy of putting errors on the final green of regulation.
Brooks, playing in the second-to-last group, three-putted the 18th to slip one shot back of Goosen, then headed to the clubhouse to clean out his locker. Goosen then hit a brilliant approach shot to 12 feet but ran his birdie effort two feet by the hole. He misread the short par try and bogeyed, forcing the Monday finish. Moments earlier Stewart Cink, who was in the final pairing with Goosen, double-bogeyed the 18th when he misfired on a shorter putt than Goosen's. Had he made the virtual tap-in, Cink would have been part of the playoff the next day.
Brooks, who won his seventh career title at the 1996 PGA Championship after a sudden-death playoff with Kenny Perry, came into last year's U.S. Open having posted only 11 top-10 finishes on tour in the five years since his major triumph. He was an unlikely contender, to say the least, but his success does raise the possibility that another former major winner who's fallen on tough times could catch lightning in a bottle this week at Bethpage.
Steve Jones, whose victory at Oakland Hills in 1996 saw him become the last player to capture the U.S. Open title after advancing through sectional qualifying, followed with three regular tour wins over the next two seasons. But he was hampered by injuries in 1999 and his highest position on the money list the last three years was 87th in 2000. Corey Pavin, the 1995 Open champion the last time New York hosted the event, at Shinnecock Hills, won the Colonial the following season but has finished among the top-10 in tournaments just eight times since.
Neither Jones nor Pavin would seem to have the game to be factors this week, although anyone would have said the same thing about Brooks last year. Correctly choosing a dark horse of his magnitude is almost impossible, so the next best thing is to pick a player who goes against a long-time trend.
While no European player has come out on top at a U.S. Open since England's Tony Jacklin in 1970, Scotland's Colin Montgomerie and Spain's Sergio Garcia are both solid choices to be the next.
Montgomerie, who finished atop the European Tour Order of Merit seven straight years from 1993-99, is coming off four straight top-four results on his home circuit - including a pair of runner-ups - despite suffering from back problems. He's never missed a U.S. Open cut and has tallied a trio of top-three finishes. Two were second-place showings, with Monty losing to Els both times - in a playoff at Oakmont in 1994 and by one shot at Congressional in 1997.
Monty's never won an event in the United States, however, and he's often been the target of the rowdier segment of American golf galleries, most notably during the 1999 Ryder Cup at Brookline. His hecklers know they can easily get to him, so the Scot will probably have to retract his infamous 'rabbit ears' if he hopes to survive the tough New York fans.
That leaves 'El Nio.' Garcia, who won the first of his three PGA Tour titles just over a year ago at the Colonial, was right in the mix at last year's U.S. Open, just one stroke back after three rounds. But he struggled on the final day, turning in a 77 to tie for 12th.
Flash forward to '02, and the young Spaniard is in the midst of a scoring slump. Only five of his last 32 PGA Tour rounds have been in the 60s and last month he missed back-to-back cuts in Texas, the second when he was defending his breakthrough title at the Colonial. He showed signs of turning it around last week at the Buick Classic, where he posted four rounds of par or better.
Like most players, Garcia's U.S. Open hopes rest with his driver and his putter. He's long (currently fifth in driving distance with 291.3-yard average) and straight (38th in driving accuracy with 71% of fairways hit) with the big stick, but his numbers on the greens have been a disappointment in '02.
Fourth on tour in total putting just two seasons ago, Garcia backed up to the mid-20s in those stats in 2001. Not a huge drop-off, but this year he's 73rd in putting average and 82nd in putts per round.
Still, Garcia's an elite player who puts his ball long in the fairway and is creative when faced with tough situations. Look for Woods and Garcia to be in the final pairing come Sunday (and maybe Monday if the scoring is really low and tight) when the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, the USGA's generous gift to public golf, comes to a close.
Singh's lawsuit stalls as judge denies motion
Vijay Singh’s attempts to speed up the proceedings in his ongoing lawsuit against the PGA Tour have been stalled, again.
Singh – who filed the lawsuit in New York Supreme Court in May 2013 claiming the Tour recklessly administered its anti-doping program when he was suspended, a suspension that was later rescinded – sought to have the circuit sanctioned for what his attorneys argued was a frivolous motion, but judge Eileen Bransten denied the motion earlier this month.
“While the court is of the position it correctly denied the Tour’s motion to argue, the court does not agree that the motion was filed in bad faith nor that it represents a ‘persistent pattern of repetitive or meritless motions,’” Bransten said.
It also doesn’t appear likely the case will go to trial any time soon, with Bransten declining Singh’s request for a pretrial conference until a pair of appeals that have been sent to the court’s appellate division have been decided.
“What really should be done is settle this case,” Bransten said during the hearing, before adding that it is, “unlikely a trail will commence prior to 2019.”
The Tour’s longstanding policy is not to comment on ongoing litigation, but earlier this month commissioner Jay Monahan was asked about the lawsuit.
“I'll just say that we're going through the process,” Monahan said. “Once you get into a legal process, and you've been into it as long as we have been into it, I think it's fair to assume that we're going to run it until the end.”
Videos and images from Tiger's Tuesday at Torrey
Tiger Woods played a nine-hole practice round Tuesday at Torrey Pines South, site of this week's Farmers Insurance Open. Woods is making his first PGA Tour start since missing the cut in this event last year. Here's a look at some images and videos of Tiger, via social media:
Tiger sighting on the range! pic.twitter.com/rcJYLCes7R— Morning Drive (@GCMorningDrive) January 23, 2018
Back on TOUR.pic.twitter.com/OPmjaXFo1l— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) January 23, 2018
Power Rankings: 2018 Farmers Insurance Open
The PGA Tour remains in California this week for the Farmers Insurance Open. A field of 156 players will tackle the North and South Courses at Torrey Pines, with weekend play exclusively on the South Course.
Be sure to join the all-new Golf Channel Fantasy Challenge - including a new One & Done game offering - to compete for prizes and form your own leagues, and log on to www.playfantasygolf.com to submit your picks for this week's event.
Jon Rahm won this event last year by three shots over Charles Howell III and C.T. Pan. Here are 10 names to watch in La Jolla:
1. Jon Rahm: No need to overthink it at the top. Rahm enters as a defending champ for the first time, fresh off a playoff win at the CareerBuilder Challenge that itself was preceded by a runner-up showing at Kapalua. Rahm is perhaps the hottest player in the field, and with a chance to become world No. 1 should be set for another big week.
2. Jason Day: The Aussie has missed the cut here the last two years, and he hasn't played competitively since November. But he ended a disappointing 2017 on a slight uptick, and his Torrey Pines record includes three straight top-10s from 2013-15 that ended with his victory three years ago.
3. Justin Rose: Rose ended last year on a tear, with three victories over his final six starts including two in a row in Turkey and China. The former U.S. Open winner has the patience to deal with a brutal layout like the South Course, as evidenced by his fourth-place showing at this event a year ago.
4. Rickie Fowler: This tournament has become somewhat feast-or-famine for Fowler, who is making his ninth straight start at Torrey Pines. The first four in that run all netted top-20 finishes, including two top-10s, while the last four have led to three missed cuts and a T-61. After a win in the Bahamas and T-4 at Kapalua, it's likely his mini-slump comes to an end.
5. Brandt Snedeker: Snedeker has become somewhat of a course specialist at Torrey Pines in recent years, with six top-10 finishes over the last eight years including wins in both 2012 and 2016. While he missed much of the second half of 2017 recovering from injury and missed the cut last week, Snedeker is always a threat to contend at this particular event.
6. Hideki Matsuyama: Matsuyama struggled to find his footing after a near-miss at the PGA Championship, but he appears to be returning to form. The Japanese phenom finished T-4 at Kapalua and has put up solid results in two of his four prior trips to San Diego, including a T-16 finish in his 2014 tournament debut. Matsuyama deserves a look at any event that puts a strong emphasis on ball-striking.
7. Tony Finau: Finau has the length to handle the difficult demands of the South Course, and his results have gotten progressively better each time around: T-24 in 2015, T-18 in 2016 and T-4 last year. Finau is coming off the best season of his career, one that included a trip to the Tour Championship, and he put together four solid rounds at the Sony Open earlier this month.
8. Charles Howell III: Howell is no stranger to West Coast golf, and his record at this event since 2013 includes three top-10 finishes highlighted by last year's runner-up showing. Howell chased a T-32 finish in Hawaii with a T-20 finish last week in Palm Springs, his fourth top-20 finish this season.
9. Marc Leishman: Leishman was twice a runner-up at this event, first in 2010 and again in 2014, and he finished T-20 last year. The Aussie is coming off a season that included two wins, and he has amassed five top-10s in his last eight worldwide starts dating back to the Dell Technologies Championship in September.
10. Gary Woodland: Woodland played in the final group at this event in 2014 before tying for 10th, and he was one shot off the lead entering the final round in 2016 before Mother Nature blew the entire field sideways. Still, the veteran has three top-20s in his last four trips to San Diego and finished T-7 two weeks ago in Honolulu.
Davis on distance: Not 'necessarily good for the game'
It's a new year, but USGA executive Mike Davis hasn't changed his views on the growing debate over distance.
Speaking with Matt Adams on SiriusXM PGA Tour Radio, Davis didn't mince words regarding his perception that increased distance has had a negative impact on the game of golf, and he reiterated that it's a topic that the USGA and R&A plan to jointly address.
"The issue is complex. It's important, and it's one that we need to, and we will, face straight on," Davis said. "I think on the topic of distance, we've been steadfast to say that we do not think increased distance is necessarily good for the game."
Davis' comments echoed his thoughts in November, when he stated that the impact of increased distance has been "horrible" for the game. Those comments drew a strong rebuke from Titleist CEO Wally Uihlein, who claimed there was "no evidence" to support Davis' argument.
That argument, again reiterated Tuesday, centers on the rising costs associated with both acquiring and maintaining increased footprints for courses. Davis claimed that 1 in 4 courses in the U.S. is currently "not making money," and noted that while U.S. Open venues were 6,800-6,900 yards at the start of his USGA tenure, the norm is now closer to 7,400-7,500 yards.
"You ask yourself, 'What has this done for the game? How has that made the game better?'" Davis said. "I think if we look at it, and as we look to the future, we're asking ourselves, saying, 'We want the game of golf to be fun.' We want it to continue to be challenging and really let your skills dictate what scores you should shoot versus necessarily the equipment.
"But at the same time, we know there are pressures on golf courses. We know those pressures are going to become more acute."