Heartache Among the Azaleas

By Associated PressApril 5, 2008, 4:00 pm
Sometimes they can see the Masters being taken away from them:
Tom Weiskopf was on the 16th tee late Sunday afternoon in 1975, staring across the pond at Jack Nicklaus crouched over a 40-foot putt. The ball disappeared, Nicklaus ran to his right and leaped so high that he left bear tracks on the green. Weiskopf became a runner-up for the fourth time and never again contended.
Sometimes they can hear the Masters elude them:
Ernie Els closed with a 67 in 2004, then retreated to the practice green to prepare for a playoff. First came the warm applause as Phil Mickelson, tied for the lead, ambled up to the 18th green. Els nervously rapped a few putts and munched on an apple, waiting and listening. His dream was shattered by delirium that rocked Augusta National.
'I just heard the roar,' Els said. 'I couldn't see that it was Phil, but after hearing the people's applause, I knew it was Phil.'
And there are times when there is not much to say:
'Don't let the bastards get you down,' Nick Faldo whispered into the ear of Greg Norman after coming from six shots behind to win by five in 1996. Norman's collapse was the greatest in Masters history and one that made him an indelible image of agony at Augusta National.
Every major championship seems to hold a hex over some of golf's best players.
Sam Snead's record 82 victories does not include a single U.S. Open, the only major keeping him from the career Grand Slam. Phil Mickelson already has tied his record with four second-place finishes at the U.S. Open. Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson never won a PGA Championship, the major keeping them from the career Grand Slam.
But the Masters has the longest list of heartache.
No other tournament with so much tradition shows so little compassion.
'It bothered me,' Johnny Miller said of his three runner-up finishes, but never a green jacket. 'You get some Masters baggage in your brain. The more times you come close and don't get it, the more it builds up in your head.'
David Duval came close four straight years, the first time in 1998 when he closed with a 67. He was in Jones Cabin with chairman Jack Stephens as they watched Mark O'Meara measure a 20-foot birdie putt on the final hole. Duval figured he was headed for a playoff.
'Don't worry, David,' Stephens told him. 'Nobody ever makes that putt.'
O'Meara made the putt.
'Hey, good tournament,' was all Stephens could say to a shocked Duval. 'We'll look forward to seeing you next year.'
There was always next year, right?
But it never came for Ken Venturi, who was poised to win the Masters three times in six years, once as an amateur.
Not many suffered quite like Weiskopf, a runner-up four times in a seven-year stretch. Even after Nicklaus dropped in that shocking putt in 1975, Weiskopf had an 8-foot birdie to tie, and it somehow stayed out.
'One of these days, the putt is going in and I'll win a Masters,' he said that day.
He never did.
Tom Kite was a three-time runner-up, and that doesn't include the one time he held the 54-hole lead, when he shot 75 in the final round of 1984 and tied for sixth. Duval had it as tough as anyone. He played Augusta National in 31-under par during his four straight years in contention.
'I played as well as anyone, including those who won,' Duval said.
Of the seven players who have suffered the most at the Masters, Els is the only one who still returns for more punishment. He was runner-up in 2000 when he couldn't get a putt to fall over the final three holes. He was closing in on Tiger Woods in 2002 until taking an 8 on the 13th hole of the final round. And then there was 2004, the most devastating of all.
'I'll get over this,' Els said. 'I'll have another shot. I'm sure of that.'
That's what Weiskopf said in 1975. That's how Venturi felt in 1960 when Arnold Palmer birdied the last two holes to win by one. Kite for years could not fathom how his 12-foot birdie putt to tie Nicklaus in 1986 stayed out. Asked recently why there was so little evidence of payback at the Masters, Kite bristled at what he called a 'stupid premise' and stormed off.
'You just look at the things that happen at that tournament,' Venturi said. 'There's always something.'
Els backed away and held up his hands when presented with that question two weeks ago, almost as if it would harm his chances.
'No, no. Don't say that,' he said.
But there are questions whether he fully recovered from his brush with being a Masters champion, and even now the 38-year-old South African tries to make sure he is not consumed with Augusta National as the tournament nears.
'I think in the past, I drove myself so much, especially after 2004, the way it happened,' he said. 'After that, I haven't played too well. This year, for some reason, I feel different. I feel very comfortable. Many years I have felt good there. I know the course. You've just got to play the shots. If you have a bit of doubt at Augusta, you've got to step away.'
Duval missed the Masters for the first time last year when his five-year exemption from winning the British Open expired. He is in a mystifying slump, and the Masters no longer means as much to him as when he came so close from 1998 through 2001. Even now, he can point to a shot on the back nine, a break that went against him.
Vijay Singh, after getting a fortuitous drop from the pond on the 11th to escape with bogey, hit a tee shot on No. 12 that tumbled out of the jasmine bushes and into a bunker in 2000. A year later, when Woods won his fourth consecutive major, Duval had birdie putts from 12 feet and 5 feet on the last two holes that for whatever reason did not go in.
'I would imagine among non-winners, my lack of good fortune stacks up with anyone,' Duval said.
There are no answers. And there are no green jackets.
If there is a mystique about the Masters, it's not always favorable. Returning to the same course every year since 1934 invariably stirs bad memories that must be overcome.
'If you have a few close calls in the U.S. Open, you're always doing it somewhere else,' Geoff Ogilvy said. 'If you have demons at Augusta, which everybody does, guys will remember. You have demons before you even play there.'
Els remains hopeful that this year will bring him a coveted title. But history shows that if golf ever decides it owes someone, Augusta National is the last place for payback.
'The 1975 Masters, that was the end of me,' Weiskopf told Golf Digest in an interview 20 years later. 'It was just so disheartening.'
As for Norman?
He last qualified for the Masters in 2001, two decades after his debut at Augusta National, and reality began to take root.
'It's hard to sit here and think you'll never get another chance,' Norman said that year. 'This place may finally have done me in. I would have loved to have won here, but it's not the be all and the end all. It's just when you've been involved for a long time in the history of the tournament, you want the good side, too -- the green jacket.
'Not for the jacket itself, but for what it means.'
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    Berger more than ready to rebound at Travelers

    By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:54 pm

    CROMWELL, Conn. – Daniel Berger hopes that this year he gets to be on the other end of a viral moment at the Travelers Championship.

    Berger was a hard-luck runner-up last year at TPC River Highlands, a spectator as Jordan Spieth holed a bunker shot to defeat him in a playoff. It was the second straight year that the 25-year-old came up just short outside Hartford, as he carried a three-shot lead into the 2016 event before fading to a tie for fifth.

    While he wasn’t lacking any motivation after last year’s close call, Berger got another dose last week at the U.S. Open when he joined Tony Finau as a surprise participant in the final group Sunday, only to shoot a 73 and drift to a T-6 finish.

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    “It was one of the best experiences of my professional golf career so far. I feel like I’m going to be in such a better place next time I’m in that position, having felt those emotions and kind of gone through it,” Berger said. “There was a lot of reflection after that because I felt like I played good enough to get it done Sunday. I didn’t make as many putts as I wanted to, but I hit a lot of really good putts. And that’s really all you can do.”

    Berger missed the cut earlier this month to end his quest for three straight titles in Memphis, but his otherwise consistent season has now included six top-20 finishes since January. After working his way into contention last week and still with a score to settle at TPC River Highlands, he’s eager to get back to work against another star-studded field.

    “I think all these experiences you just learn from,” Berger said. “I think last week, having learned from that, I think that’s even going to make me a little better this week. So I’m excited to get going.”

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    Rory tired of the near-misses, determined to close

    By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:46 pm

    CROMWELL, Conn. – Rory McIlroy has returned to the Travelers Championship with an eye on bumping up his winning percentage.

    McIlroy stormed from the back of the pack to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, but that remains his lone worldwide win since the 2016 Tour Championship. It speaks to McIlroy’s considerable ability and lofty expectations that, even with a number of other high finishes this season, he is left unsatisfied.

    “I feel like I’ve had five realistic chances to win this year, and I’ve been able to close out one of them. That’s a bit disappointing, I guess,” McIlroy said. “But at least I’ve given myself five chances to win golf tournaments, which is much more than I did last year.”

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    The most memorable of McIlroy’s near-misses is likely the Masters, when he played alongside Patrick Reed in Sunday’s final group but struggled en route to a T-5 finish. But more frustrating in the Ulsterman’s eyes were his runner-up at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, when he led by two shots with eight holes to go, and a second-place showing behind Francesco Molinari at the BMW PGA Championship in May.

    “There’s been some good golf in there,” he said. “I feel like I let Dubai and Wentworth get away a little bit.”

    He’ll have a chance to rectify that trend this week at TPC River Highlands, where he finished T-17 last year in his tournament debut and liked the course and the tournament enough to keep it on his schedule. It comes on the heels of a missed cut at the U.S. Open, when he was 10 over through 11 holes and never got on track. McIlroy views that result as more of an aberration during a season in which he has had plenty of chances to contend on the weekend.

    “I didn’t necessarily play that badly last week. I feel like if I play similarly this week, I might have a good chance to win,” McIlroy said. “I think when you play in conditions like that, it magnifies parts of your game that maybe don’t stack up quite as good as the rest of your game, and it magnified a couple of things for me that I worked on over the weekend.”

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    Sunday run at Shinnecock gave Reed even more confidence

    By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:08 pm

    CROMWELL, Conn. – While many big names are just coming around to the notion that the Travelers Championship is worth adding to the schedule, Patrick Reed has been making TPC River Highlands one of his favorite haunts for years.

    Reed will make his seventh straight appearance outside Hartford, where he tied for fifth last year and was T-11 the year before that. He is eager to get back to the grind after a stressful week at the U.S. Open, both because of his past success here and because it will offer him a chance to build on a near-miss at Shinnecock Hills.

    Reed started the final round three shots off the lead, but he quickly stormed toward the top of the leaderboard and became one of Brooks Koepka’s chief threats after birdies on five of his first seven holes. Reed couldn’t maintain the momentum in the middle of the round, carding three subsequent bogeys, and ultimately tied for fourth.

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    It was a bittersweet result, but Reed is focusing on the positives after taking a couple days to reflect.

    “If you would have told me that I had a chance to win coming down Sunday, I would have been pleased,” Reed said. “I felt like I just made too many careless mistakes towards the end, and because of that, you’re not going to win at any major making careless mistakes, especially on Sunday.”

    Reed broke through for his first major title at the Masters, and he has now finished fourth or better in three straight majors dating back to a runner-up at the PGA last summer. With another chance to add to that record next month in Scotland, he hopes to carry the energy from last week’s close call into this week’s event on a course where he feels right at home.

    “It just gives me confidence, more than anything,” Reed said. “Of course I would have loved to have closed it out and win, but it was a great week all in all, and there’s a lot of stuff I can take from it moving forward. That’s how I’m looking at it.”

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    Koepka back to work, looking to add to trophy collection

    By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 8:53 pm

    CROMWELL, Conn. – Days after ensuring the U.S. Open trophy remained in his possession for another year, Brooks Koepka went back to work.

    Koepka flew home to Florida after successfully defending his title at Shinnecock Hills, celebrating the victory Monday night with Dustin Johnson, Paulina Gretzky, swing coach Claude Harmon III and a handful of close friends. But he didn’t fully unwind because of a decision to honor his commitment to the Travelers Championship, becoming the first player to tee it up the week after a U.S. Open win since Justin Rose in 2013.

    Koepka withdrew from the Travelers pro-am, but he flew north to Connecticut on Wednesday and arrived to TPC River Highlands around 3 p.m., quickly heading to the driving range to get in a light practice session.

    “It still hasn’t sunk in, to be honest with you,” Koepka said. “I’m still focused on this week. It was just like, ‘All right, if I can get through this week, then I’m going to be hanging with my buddies next week.’ I know then maybe it’ll sink in, and I’ll get to reflect on it a little bit more.”

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    Koepka’s plans next week with friends in Boston meant this week’s event outside Hartford made logistical sense. But he was also motivated to play this week because, plainly, he hasn’t had that many playing opportunities this year after missing nearly four months with a wrist injury.

    “I’ve had so many months at home being on the couch. I don’t need to spend any more time on the couch,” Koepka said. “As far as skipping, it never crossed my mind.”

    Koepka’s legacy was undoubtedly bolstered by his win at Shinnecock, as he became the first player in nearly 30 years to successfully defend a U.S. Open title. But he has only one other PGA Tour win to his credit, that being the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open, and his goal for the rest of the season is to make 2018 his first year with multiple trophies on the mantle.

    “If you’re out here for more than probably 15 events, it gives you a little better chance to win a couple times. Being on the sidelines isn’t fun,” Koepka said. “Keep doing what we’re doing and just try to win multiple times every year. I feel like I have the talent. I just never did it for whatever reason. Always felt like we ran into a buzzsaw. So just keep plugging away.”