Merrick outduels Beljan in playoff at Riviera

By Doug FergusonFebruary 18, 2013, 1:38 am

LOS ANGELES – John Merrick was a young face in the crowd at Riviera for so many years, dreaming of one day playing the fabled course on the PGA Tour.

On Sunday, he did better than that. He won on it.

Merrick hit two clutch shots that led to two pars in a sudden-death playoff and won the Northern Trust Open on Sunday when Charlie Beljan missed a 5-foot par putt on the second extra hole.

Merrick, who closed with a 2-under 69, became only the ninth player make this tournament his first PGA Tour victory. It could not have come at a better place. Merrick grew up in Long Beach, attended this event as a kid and went to school down the street at UCLA.

''I can't put this into words,'' he said off the 10th green, his eyes welling with tears. ''Growing up as a kid, coming out here, I just wanted to play this tournament.''


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It was a tough finish for Beljan, famous for having an anxiety attack when he won at Disney late last year. He holed an 18-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole, similar to the theatrics provided last year by Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley, to close with a 4-under 67 and wind up in a playoff.

He had to make a tough 6-foot putt for par on No. 18 on the first playoff hole. Going to the par-4 10th, 315 yards of sheer nerves, Beljan drove long and left, and his chip didn't reach the green. He putted his third shot just above the hole, and watched it slide by on the left for a bogey.

Beljan also made bogey on the 10th hole in regulation.

The key for Merrick might have been on the par-5 17th in regulation, when he pulled his second shot from a bunker toward the eucalyptus trees, only to find that he had just enough of a gap to go at the green and escape with par.

More great recoveries followed in the playoff. He was well to the right of the 18th fairway, and hit a hard punch shot that rolled just over the back of the green and allowed him to get up-and-down for par. On the second hole, the dangerous 10th, he laid up too far to the right – nothing short of a perfectly struck wedge could stay on the green, and he pulled it off, the ball settling 18 feet away. A few inches longer and it would have tumbled into the back bunker.

Merrick, who finished at 11-under 273, moved to No. 4 in the FedEx Cup and is virtually assured of qualifying for his first World Golf Championship next month at Doral.

Fredrik Jacobson missed a 4-foot par putt on the 18th hole that would have put the Swede in a playoff. He wound up with a 69 and tied for third with Charl Schwartzel (70) and Bill Haas (73), who also had chances to win at different stages in their rounds.

The final round contained far more drama than anyone imagined at the start of the day, when Haas had a three-shot lead. Six players were separated by one shot going into the final hour at Riviera, and it easily could have been a repeat of that six-man playoff in 2001 in the cold rain.

This pleasant day of bright sunshine brought a few cloudy moments.

Hunter Mahan was tied for the lead after a 30-foot birdie on the 14th, only to drop four shots on the last four holes. Nothing stung worse than the par-5 17th, where he three-putted from about 30 feet for bogey. He wound up with a 69. Jacobson was tied for the lead when he missed an 8-foot birdie attempt on the 17th, and then badly pulled a 4-foot par putt on the last hole and missed out on the playoff. The Swede closed with a 69, and bristled when asked about the final hole.

''You want me to touch that one, only that one? I cannot speak about something else?'' he said, before eventually conceding, ''The last putt wasn't very good.''

No one was more disgusted than Schwartzel, the former Masters champion. One shot out of the lead, he missed a 10-foot birdie putt on the par-3 16th, and then three-putted the 17th, missing a 6-footer for birdie. He closed with a 70 and tied for third, his seventh straight finish in the top five around the world.

Haas faded much sooner. He made five bogeys in a seven-hole stretch in the middle of his round, and his birdie-birdie finish allowed him to tie for third.

''Positives to be taken, but overall, you don't get this many opportunities,'' Haas said. ''A three-shot lead at one of the best tournaments of the year is a great opportunity that I squandered.''

Haas looked to be in good position to join Mickelson, Mike Weir, Corey Pavin and Ben Hogan as the only back-to-back winners at Riviera. And when he dropped in a 30-foot birdie putt on the third hole, he looked as though he would be tough to catch.

Instead of running away from the field, he let everyone back into the tournament. Haas made back-to-back bogeys late on the front nine, and his lead was down to one when he made the turn. It all began to take shape at No. 10, the hole where a year ago Haas holed a 45-foot birdie putt to win in a playoff.

Merrick laid up on the short par 4, and his wedge was inches from tumbling into a front bunker when it checked up on the fringe. He made birdie from just inside 15 feet and tied Haas for the lead. Mahan went from the front bunker to the back bunker and still saved par with an 8-foot putt, which loomed large when he wound up in a tie for the lead a few holes later.

Haas went just through the green and rolled down a slope into the rough, and from there he pitched too strong and into the bunker. He failed to get up-and-down and made bogey to fall out of the lead for the first time all day, and he never caught up. His tee shots sailed into the trees and into the rough, and he was out of the picture.

There was no shortage of clutch shots over the final hour, even if some of those putts were for par.

Merrick fell out of the lead with a bogey from the ditch left of the 13th green, and he was showing signs of a quick fade until he poured in a 25-foot par putt on the next hole, just moments after Jacobson holed a 30-foot par putt.

Beljan's only bogey in the final round was on the 10th hole. He was flawless the rest of the way, until coming to the 10th hole in a playoff with the tournament on the line.


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HOFer Stephenson: Robbie wants to play me in movie

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 4:20 pm

Margot Robbie has already starred in one sports-related biopic, and if she gets her way a second opportunity might not be far behind.

Robbie earned an Academy Award nomination for her work last year as former Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding in the movie, I Tonya. She also has a desire to assume the role of her fellow Aussie, Jan Stephenson, in a movie where she would trade in her skates for a set of golf clubs.

That's at least according to Stephenson, who floated out the idea during an interview with Golf Australia's Inside the Ropes podcast shortly after being announced as part of the next class of World Golf Hall of Fame inductees.

"We've talked about doing a movie. Margot Robbie wants to play me," Stephenson said.

There certainly would be a resemblance between the two Australian blondes, as Robbie has become one of Hollywood's leading ladies while Stephenson was on the cutting edge of sex appeal during her playing career. In addition to several magazine covers, Stephenson also racked up 16 LPGA wins between 1976-87 including three majors.

Robbie, 28, has also had starring roles in Suicide Squad and The Wolf of Wall Street.

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Monday Scramble: Who's No. 1 ... in the long run?

By Ryan LavnerOctober 22, 2018, 4:00 pm

Brooks Koepka becomes golf’s new king, Sergio Garcia enjoys the Ryder Cup bump, Danielle Kang overcomes the demons, Michelle Wie goes under the knife and more in this week’s edition of Monday Scramble:

Brooks Koepka added an exclamation point to his breakout year.

His red-hot finish at the CJ Cup not only earned him a third title in 2018, but with the victory he leapfrogged Dustin Johnson to become the top-ranked player in the world for the first time.

That top spot could become a revolving door over the next few months, with Johnson, Justin Thomas and Justin Rose all vying for No. 1, but it’s a fitting coda to Koepka’s stellar year that included two more majors and Player of the Year honors.

For a player whose team searches long and hard for slights, there’s no questioning now his place in the game.


1. DJ won three events this season, but he wasn’t able to create much separation between him and the rest of the world’s best players.

Koepka’s rise to No. 1 made him the fourth player to reach the top spot this year, and the third in the past month.

Who has the greatest potential to get to No. 1 and stay there? Johnson is the best bet in the short term, but he’s also 34. Koepka will be a threat in the majors as long as he stays healthy. So the belief here is that it’ll be Justin Thomas, who is 25, without weakness and, best of all, hungry for more success.  

2. Koepka had an eventful final round at the CJ Cup. Staked to a four-shot lead in the final round, his advantage was trimmed to one after a sloppy start, then he poured it on late with an inward 29. He punctuated his historic victory with an eagle on the 72nd hole, smirking as it tumbled into the cup.

It was his fifth career Tour title – but only his second non-major. Weird.

3. How appropriate that golf’s most underappreciated talent – at least in his estimation – became world No. 1 in a limited-field event that finished at 2 a.m. on the East Coast. Somehow he’ll spin this into being overlooked, again.



4. Sergio Garcia carried all of that Ryder Cup momentum into the Andalucia Valderrama Masters, where he earned the hat trick by capturing his third consecutive title there.

While the rest of the world’s best gathered in Korea or rested for global golf’s finishing kick, Garcia won the weather-delayed event by four shots over Shane Lowry. Garcia’s foundation hosts the tournament, and he extended his crazy-good record there: In 14 career appearances at Valderrama, he has three wins, seven top-3s, nine top-5s and 13 top-10s.

Garcia, who went 3-1 at the recent Ryder Cup, became the first player since Ernie Els (2004) to win the same European Tour event three years in a row.

5. Gary Woodland probably doesn’t want 2018 to end.

He was the runner-up at the CJ Cup, his second consecutive top-5 to start the season. He made 11(!) birdies in the final round and now is a combined 37 under par for the first two starts of the new season.

6. This definitely wasn’t the Ryder Cup.

Four shots back, and the closest pursuer to Koepka, Ian Poulter had a chance to put pressure on the leader in the final round. Instead, he was left in the dust, mustering only three birdies and getting waxed by seven shots (64-71) on the last day. Poulter tumbled all the way into a tie for 10th.



7. It hasn’t been the easiest road for Danielle Kang since she won the 2017 Women’s PGA.

The 26-year-old said she’s dealt with anxiety for months and has battled both putting and full-swing yips. Her problems were so deep that a week ago, she stood over the ball for four minutes and couldn’t pull the trigger.

No wonder she said that she was “pretty stunned” to hold off a bevy of challengers to win her second career title at the Buick LPGA Shanghai.

“I’m finally at a place where I’m peaceful and happy with my game, with my life,” she said.

8. In the middle of the seven-way tie for second in China was Ariya Jutanugarn, who will return to No. 1 in the world for the second time this season.

9. Also in that logjam was another former top-ranked player, Lydia Ko, who had tumbled all the way to 17th. Ko hasn’t been able to build off of her slump-busting victory earlier this summer, but she now has six consecutive top-16 finishes and at least seems more comfortable in her new position.

“Sometimes you get too carried away about the awards and rankings,” she said. “It just becomes so much. I think it’s more important to keep putting myself there and … shooting in the 60s, and that way I think it builds the confidence and the rankings kind of sort itself out.”


Here's how Tiger Woods explained his pitiful performance at the Ryder Cup: “I was tired because I hadn’t trained for it. I hadn’t trained this entire comeback to play this much golf.”

Of course, he looked just fine a week earlier at East Lake, where he snapped a five-year winless drought with one of the most memorable weeks of his legendary career. His training wasn’t a topic of conversation there.

It's reasonable to expect that the emotional victory took a lot of out of him, but if he was so gassed, why did he sit only one team session and go 36 on Saturday? By Sunday night, Woods looked like he was running on empty, so either he wasn't upfront with captain Jim Furyk about his energy levels, or Furyk ran him out there anyway.

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Can’t Catch a Break: Michelle Wie. The star-crossed talent announced that she’ll miss the rest of the season to undergo surgery to repair a troublesome hand injury. Maybe one of these years she’ll be able to play a full schedule, without physical setbacks.  

Grab the Mic: Paul Azinger. Taking Johnny Miller’s seat in the booth, Azinger will call all four days of action at every Golf Channel/NBC event, beginning at the WGC-Mexico Championship. He was the most logical (and best) choice to follow the inimitable Miller.

Take That, Dawdler: Corey Pavin. It was Pavin – and not the notoriously slow Bernhard Langer – who earned the first slow-play penalty on the PGA Tour Champions in what seemed like ages. The one-shot penalty dropped him to 15th in the event.

Long Time Coming: Jason Day. His tie for fifth at the CJ Cup was his best finish worldwide since … The Players? Really. Wow.



The Tumble Continues: Jordan Spieth. In the latest world rankings, Spieth is officially out of the top 10 for the first time since November 2014. A reminder that he finished last year at No. 2.

Clutch Performances: Andalucia Masters. Both Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano and Richie Ramsay both moved inside the top 116 in the Race to Dubai standings, securing their European Tour cards for next season. Gonzo tied for fifth in the regular-season finale, while Ramsay was joint 11th.

That’s Messed Up: CJ Cup purse. As colleague Will Gray noted, the purse for the 78-man event was $9.5 million – or $400K more than the first 15 events of the Web.com Tour schedule combined. The difference between the haves and have-nots has never been larger.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Justin Thomas. The defending champion never could get started in Korea, closing with his low round of the week, a 4-under 68, just to salvage a tie for 36th. Sigh.  

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Azinger: 'Can't see anybody beating Tiger' at his best

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 2:44 pm

There's a new world No. 1, and a fresh crop of young guns eager to make their mark on the PGA Tour in 2019. But according to Paul Azinger, the player with the highest ceiling is still the same as it was when he was walking inside the ropes.

Azinger was named Monday as lead golf analyst for NBC Sports, and on "Morning Drive" he was asked which player is the best when all are playing their best. The former PGA champion pondered new world No. 1 Brooks Koepka and former No. 1 Dustin Johnson, but he came back around to a familiar answer: Tiger Woods.

"I just can't see anybody beating Tiger when Tiger's at his best. I just can't see it," Azinger said. "He's not his best yet, but he's almost his best. And when Tiger's his best, there's more that comes with Tiger than just the score he shoots. That crowd comes with Tiger, and it's a whole 'nother dynamic when Tiger's at his best. And I'm just going to have to say that when Tiger's at his best, he's still the best."

Woods, 42, started this year ranked No. 656 in the world but had a resurgent season that included a pair of near-misses at The Open and PGA Championship and culminated with his win at the Tour Championship that ended a five-year victory drought. For Azinger, the question now becomes how he can follow up a breakthrough campaign as he looks to contend consistently against players from a younger generation.

"That's why we watch, to see if he can maintain that. To see what he's capable of," Azinger said. "Now longevity becomes the issue for Tiger Woods. In seven or eight years, he's going to be 50 years old. That goes fast. I'm telling you, that goes really fast."

When Woods returns to action, he'll do so with a focus on the upcoming Masters as he looks to capture the 15th major title that has eluded him for more than a decade. With bombers like Koepka and Johnson currently reigning on the PGA Tour, Azinger believes the key for Woods will be remaining accurate while relying on the world-class iron play that has been a strength throughout his career.

"I think he's going to have to recognize that he's not the beast out there when it comes to smacking that ball off the tee. But I'd like to see him try to hit a couple more fairways periodically. That'd be nice," he said. "If he can drive that ball in the fairway, with that putter, we've seen what his putter is capable of. The sky's the limit, boys."

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Spieth drops out of top 10 for first time since 2014

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 2:08 pm

As Brooks Koepka ascended to the top of the Official World Golf Ranking, a former No. 1 continued a notable decline.

Jordan Spieth didn't play last week's CJ Cup, where Koepka won by four shots. But Jason Day did, and his T-5 finish in South Korea moved him up two spots from No. 12 to No. 10 in the latest rankings. Spieth dropped from 10th to 11th, marking the first time that he has been outside the top 10 in the world rankings since November 2014.

Since that time, he has won 12 times around the world, including three majors, while spending 26 weeks as world No. 1. But he hasn't won a tournament since The Open last July, and this year he missed the Tour Championship for the first time in his career. Spieth is expected to make his season debut next week in Las Vegas at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.


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Koepka and Day were the only movers among the top 10 on a week that saw many top players remain in place. Sergio Garcia's rain-delayed win at the Andalucia Valderrama Masters moved him up four spots to No. 27, while Gary Woodland went from 38th to 30th after finishing second behind Koepka on Jeju Island.

Koepka will tee off as world No. 1 for the first time this week at the WGC-HSBC Champions, where new No. 2 Dustin Johnson will look to regain the top spot. Justin Rose is now third in the world, with Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Francesco Molinari, Bryson DeChambeau, Jon Rahm, Rickie Fowler and Day rounding out the top 10.

With his next competitive start unknown, Tiger Woods remained 13th in the world for the fifth straight week.