Golfs Holy Grail
Long gone are the days when players like Irish legend Christy OConnor Sr. turned down invites to Augusta because the round trip airfare was too expensive; the risk/reward too high.
Now you have big and medium names alike going deep into the Fall Series (also a mostly-unqualified success in its first year) chasing a spot in the top 30 on the final 2007 PGA TOUR money list and the automatic Masters bid that goes with it.
I have to say, plain and simple, Im here to maintain my spot at Augusta, said Steve Flesch Thursday after opening with a 5-under 68 at the Ginn sur Mer Classic at Tesoro, the penultimate event of the Fall Series. Neither of my victories earlier in the year gave me an automatic exemption to Augusta. So I am here to maintain my position in the top 30.
Flesch arrived at Tesoro holding down the No. 25 spot on the money list at $2.278 million. Among the players he said he was watching closely were No. 26 Robert Allenby and No. 37 Jerry Kelly.
Ive played a couple of Masters and I want to go back, Flesch added. If you told me 10 weeks ago I would be sitting here trying to maintain my spot, I would say youre crazy.
But Flesch made the mistake of winning on weeks that didnt offer full qualifying status to the Tour Championship. And when Masters officials, earlier this year, changed their qualifying standards to invite Tour winners, they were specific about omitting Fall Series champions or players who won Tour events opposite Tour events with bigger purses.
The Masters announced those changes on the Wednesday of Masters week earlier this year. And when they did, Mark Wilson was excited. One month earlier he had won the Honda Classic. He thought this meant he would be now be getting a coveted invitation to Augusta.
Then I checked the fine print, he said.
And he discovered that the new standards would only apply going forward from last springs Masters. The changes were not retroactive to his victory at Honda. Wilson has subsequently dropped to No. 53 on the money list.
No. 47, Sean OHair finished tied for fourth last week in Scottsdale and 15th the week before that in Las Vegas. A win at Tesoro would earn him $828,000 and guarantee a Masters invitation. A second place finish ($496,000) would probably push him into the top 30 going into next weeks finale at Disney.
OHair has played in only one Masters, shooting 76-76, missing the cut in 2006. Like Flesch he wants to get back. Badly--a pair of 68s Thursday and Friday at Tesoro were a nice start.
So does Justin Leonard, who arrived at Tesoro No. 36 on the money list. Like Flesch, Leonard won a Fall Series event (Valero Texas Open) not recognized by the invitation folks at Augusta. Leonard hasnt missed a Masters since 1995.
Through 36 holes at the Ginn event Leonard was 4 under and in 33rd place. Flesch was 6 under through 12 and in a tie for 17th; OHair 10 under and in a tie for fourth.
As for Allenby and Kelly, Flesch is smart to keep his eyes on them. But both already have qualified for the 2008 Masters under other categories: Allenby for making it to the 2007 Tour Championship and Kelly for finishing in the top 16 in last springs Masters.
Their search for golfs Holy Grail, at least for one more year, has ended in success.
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Berger more than ready to rebound at Travelers
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.
“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.”
Rory tired of the near-misses, determined to close
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.”
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.”
Sunday run at Shinnecock gave Reed even more confidence
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.
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.”
Koepka back to work, looking to add to trophy collection
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.”
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.”