Memphis offers strong test with Pinehurst looming

By Associated PressJune 4, 2014, 9:42 pm

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – There's a certain level of pressure on Harris English to defend his first PGA Tour title. It's a good thing he has a lot of friends in town considering the competition at the St. Jude Classic.

As the final tuneup for the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, this tournament has what might be its strongest field since leaving Colonial Country Club after 1988 for the TPC Southwind course.

Three-time winner Patrick Reed is just one of 13 here to win a title in recent months. Matt Kuchar withdrew Tuesday after a late commitment, but Phil Mickelson is among seven ranked in the world's top 30 honing their games for Pinehurst. David Toms and Justin Leonard, both two-time champs at this event, are among the nine former St. Jude winners here, too.

''It's amazing how many really good players are playing this week,'' English said Wednesday. ''I don't know if they really like the golf course here, it's a good warm-up for the U.S. Open or maybe it's a combination of things. But it's awesome to see because I want to play in a tournament where the best people are playing, and that's obviously what we have this week.''

English followed up his St. Jude victory by winning the OHL Classic at Mayakoba, and he has six top-10 finishes in 18 events. But he has missed the cut in three of his past five events, so he also wants to tune up for his first U.S. Open. English, who helped Baylor School in Chattanooga win four Tennessee high school golf titles before college at Georgia, arrived here early to visit with friends, relax and prepare.

He tees off Thursday morning with Mickelson and Scott Stallings, who finished tied for second here last year.

''I'm very excited to be back here and looking forward to the week,'' English said.

This tournament, sponsored by FedEx, does offer up 500 FedEx Cup points to the winner. The rough is a little sparse after a rough winter, but par is a good score on this 7,239-yard course to hone the competitive edge. A soggy spring has the fairways a little soft, but the Champion Bermuda greens are in perfect shape and similar enough to Pinehurst to provide a good test.

Add in Memphis' usual heat and humidity and Lee Westwood believes this is good preparation for Pinehurst. Westwood hasn't played at Pinehurst since the last U.S. Open there, but he won on this course in 2010.

''I feel like the areas around the greens, which are critical next week at Pinehurst are very similar here,'' Westwood said. ''You have the low-cut Bermuda grass with the grain cut into you. Delicate tough little chip shots we have to work on. It's a wonderful place to get ready for next week. I'm glad I'm here.''

Mickelson tied for 49th at Memorial last week following a visit from FBI agents and lingering questions about an insider-trading investigation. He did spend two days at Pinehurst recently working on his touch around the greens, which he hopes will translate in Memphis where a delicate hand is crucial on chip shots.

Winless since the British Open, Mickelson said he needs to finish his rounds.

''I don't feel like the parts are off, but the score's been off,'' Mickelson said. ''And so I've got to stay sharp, salvage shots, fight through each round and see if I can finish strong. Last week I finished a lot of the rounds really poorly, and I need to get momentum for next week. And the best way to do that is to shoot low numbers.''

Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champ, said everyone always tries to work their scheduling around the majors in an attempt to peak at the right time. He is coming off a break, though he came to Tennessee after playing 24 holes at Pinehurst earlier this week.

''I'd love to win here at Memphis this week,'' McDowell said. ''A lot of good pluses here at this golf course, and it's tough as well. It's a U.S. Open-type mindset as well. Par's a good score here.''

Divots: Scottie Scheffler, the 17-year-old amateur, is making his second tour start on a sponsor's exemption. Scheffler finished tied for second in his debut last month at the Byron Nelson Championship. ... NASCAR driver Danica Patrick turned out to cheer on boyfriend and fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in Wednesday's pro-am.

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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.”