No one quite sure what to expect at U.S. Open ... again

By Doug FergusonJune 8, 2017, 11:06 pm

Going somewhere new for the U.S. Open is starting to get old.

For so many years, everyone knew what to expect. With few exceptions, the event's identity as the ''toughest test in golf'' was carved out of traditional, tree-lined courses with tight fairways and thick rough, firm and fast greens. No one ever complained about making par.

Dustin Johnson won last year at Oakmont, which hosted the U.S. Open for the ninth time. He defends his title on a course that only opened 11 years ago.

For the second time in three years, the U.S. Open is headed to a course that has never hosted a major.

The stage this year is Erin Hills, the first U.S. Open in Wisconsin. The course looks like a links with its wispy grass framing rolling fairways and shaved slopes around the greens, except that it's nowhere the sea. Erin Hills is about 40 miles northwest of Milwaukee.

''I heard it's long. Big course. Long walk,'' Johnson said before going up on June 3 to see it for the first time. ''Trees? No trees?''

He wasn't sure.

About the only similarities between Erin Hills and Chambers Bay, which hosted the U.S. Open two years ago off Puget Sound in Washington state, are that both were built as public golf courses and are mostly devoid of trees.

And no one is sure what to expect, even if they've already been there.

Jordan Spieth played the 2011 U.S. Amateur at Erin Hills. He remembers rolling terrain and not many trees. He remembered the first hole and the 18th hole were par 5s (similar to Chambers Bay). And that was about it.

''Course knowledge is necessary, even more so there than a course like Oakmont that you've maybe watched on TV,'' said Spieth, who won at Chambers Bay by one shot over Johnson. ''Even seeing certain holes, if you just watched major championships in the past, can help you. And so when you come to a completely new venue, it requires quite a bit of work.''

Against this backdrop – pristine pastureland that dates to the Ice Age when a glacier retreated across Wisconsin – the 117th U.S. Open begins June 15 with plenty of intrigue that goes beyond the mystery of a new golf course.

It will be the first U.S. Open in 25 years that doesn't have the names Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson among the starting times. Woods is missing all the majors for the second straight year because of a fourth back surgery, which was a month before his DUI arrest in Florida. Mickelson, with a record six runner-up finishes in the only major he hasn't won, said he plans to skip because his daughter's high school graduation is the same day as the opening round.

Johnson, who shipped the U.S. Open trophy back to the USGA a couple of weeks ago, will try to become the first player since Curtis Strange in 1989 to successfully defend his title. Strange is the only player in more than a half-century to win back-to-back, a feat that neither Woods nor Jack Nicklaus managed.

And there is internal pressure on the USGA to get through a U.S. Open without an overload of complaints.

''If I was being completely honest, there is some of that,'' said Mike Davis, the USGA's executive director.

The greens were mostly dead, if they even had grass, when the U.S. Open was at Chambers Bay, though that was largely because of the weather. Still fresh is the fiasco from a year ago when Johnson's golf ball moved on the fifth green and there was debate whether he caused it. The USGA told him on the 12th tee it would wait until after the round for him to review it, meaning Johnson played the final seven holes not knowing the score. Neither did anyone else.

''Those things could have happened anywhere,'' Davis said. ''But they happened to us.''

Even so, this U.S. Open starts with a golf course that has never had the best players in the world, and doesn't look anything like a typical U.S. Open. The scorecard is 7,741 yards, making it the longest in U.S. Open history, though it likely will play shorter depending on how the course is set up each day. The fairways are wider than usual and there is no rough around the greens, much like Pinehurst No. 2., giving players options.

It's a major with which Nicklaus is not familiar.

''I think the USGA has gotten away from their identity with what they're doing,'' Nicklaus said. ''I haven't see the way the courses are set up. I know Chambers Bay was different. I have zero idea what Erin Hills is. I happen to like the U.S. Open the way it is."

''When you start changing around your setup, you're changing what you're asking a player to do,'' he added. ''I don't know if that's good or bad. It's just different.''

Davis, who took charge of U.S. Open setups starting with Winged Foot in 2006, says while the nature of the shots might be different depending on the golf course, the overall is exam is strong. He still strives to make it the toughest test in golf.

And he made no apologies for going to courses so new.

''What Erin Hills doesn't have is history yet,'' Davis said. ''But everybody had to start somewhere.''

This one starts with a little mystery that goes beyond Erin Hills. Going into the Masters, the biggest names in golf were winning - Spieth at Pebble Beach, Sergio Garcia in Dubai, Hideki Matsuyama in Phoenix, Rickie Fowler in Florida and then Johnson, who for the longest time looked as though he couldn't lose.

Johnson, now established at No. 1 in the world, remains the betting favorite for the U.S. Open. But he hasn't looked quite the same since he slipped in his socks down a wooden staircase and bruised his back so badly he had to withdraw from the Masters.

''I'm playing the best golf that I've ever played, and then I hurt myself and can't practice for a month,'' Johnson said. ''It definitely takes some momentum away.''

After missing the cut at the Memorial, mainly due to his putting, he spent two days at Erin Hills and liked what he saw. Johnson also is developing a reputation for being a U.S. Open player. Two years ago, he was 12 feet away from winning at Chambers Bay until a three-putt par to finish one shot behind Spieth. And then he won handily at Oakmont, even under the most bizarre circumstances of not knowing whether he would be penalized one shot when it was over.

''I've finished second and first,'' Johnson said, pausing to smile. ''Two-one-one would be nice.''

Getty Images

Watch: Tiger 'drops mic' in long drive contest

By Golf Channel DigitalMay 20, 2018, 12:44 am

Tiger Woods is in Las Vegas this weekend for the 20th annual Tiger Jam charity event that benefits his foundation.

During the tournament on Saturday afternoon, Woods challenged World Long Drive competitor Troy Mullins to a long drive contest.


A post shared by TROY MULLINS (@trojangoddess) on May 19, 2018 at 1:25pm PDT

Safe to say it looks like Tiger won.

Getty Images

Sunday showdown for Wise, Leishman at Nelson

By Will GrayMay 19, 2018, 11:40 pm

DALLAS – While the swirling Texas winds may still have their say, the AT&T Byron Nelson is shaping up to be a two-horse race.

With a four-shot gulf between them and their closest pursuers, co-leaders Marc Leishman and Aaron Wise both stepped up to the microphone and insisted the tournament was far from over. That it wouldn’t revert to a match-play situation, even though the two men didn’t face much pressure from the pack down the stretch of the third round and have clearly distanced themselves as the best in the field through 54 holes.

But outside of an outlier scenario or a rogue tornado sweeping across Trinity Forest Golf Club, one of the two will leave with trophy in hand tomorrow night.

That’s in part because of their stellar play to this point, but it’s also a byproduct of the tournament’s new and unconventional layout: at Trinity Forest, big numbers are hard to find.

Even with the winds picking up during the third round and providing the sternest challenge yet, the field combined for only 16 scores of double bogey, and nothing worse than that.

Full-field scores from the AT&T Byron Nelson

AT&T Byron Nelson: Articles, photos and videos

There’s irony in a course called Trinity Forest offering a tree-less test, sure, but there are also no water hazards in play here. For the most part, players have been maxing out with bogey – and Leishman and Wise have combined for only six of those so far this week.

If someone from the chase pack is going to catch them, the two sharing the pole position aren’t going to do them any favors.

“I don’t really want to give them a chance,” Leishman said. “I’d love to go out and shoot a low one and make Aaron have to shoot a good score tomorrow to beat me, which, I fully expect him to shoot a good score.”

While Leishman has been somewhat of a late bloomer on the PGA Tour, with only one win across his first eight seasons, he now has a golden opportunity to add a third trophy in the last 14 months. He has felt right at home on a sprawling layout that reminds him of a few back in his native Australia, and he’s part of a Down Under invasion on a leaderboard that also includes Matt Jones (-13) and Adam Scott (-9).

While Wise briefly held sole possession of the lead, Leishman has seemingly held an iron grip on the top spot since opening his week with a blistering 61.

“Before last year, I was a pretty slow starter. I always got off to a slow start Thursday, or I’d be fighting to make the cut and have a good weekend to slide into the top 10,” Leishman said. “Getting into that round straight away on the first tee rather than the ninth green or something, which sounds like a really basic thing, but it’s something I didn’t do very well until last year.”

But as Leishman acknowledged, he likely can’t count on a stumble from Wise to help finish off a wire-to-wire victory. As the youngest player to make the cut this week, Wise is facing a challenge of taking down a top-ranked Aussie for the second time in as many starts.

While he came up short at the Wells Fargo Championship, tying for second behind Jason Day, he remains supremely confident that he can put those hard-earned lessons to use this time around.

“I feel like it’s a great opportunity,” Wise said. “It will obviously be a huge day for me. I feel like having one go at it already, I’m a little more confident going into it this time.”

Even among the landscape of the Tour’s promising next wave, Wise stands out as a particularly young gun. Still only 21, he could feasibly be heading to Karsten Creek next week with his Oregon Duck teammates to close out his senior season with another NCAA championship appearance.

But Wise turned pro after winning the NCAA individual title as a sophomore, and he steadily worked his way through the professional ranks: first a win on the Mackenzie Tour in Canada, then one last summer on the Tour.

Now he’s poised to turn what he described as a “lackluster” season before his Quail Hollow runner-up into one that defies even his own expectations.

“Absolutely, I am way ahead of the curve. It’s pretty hard to do what I’ve done at such a young age. Only a few have done it,” Wise said. “I feel like I’m getting some great experience for a kid this young. It’s only going to serve me well down the road.”

An unpredictable Coore-Crenshaw layout will have one more day to star, and outside of Wise the top six names on the leaderboard have at least one Tour win to their credit. But after the two men traded punches on a firm and fast afternoon, it sure feels like the final round is shaping up to offer more of the same.

For Leishman, it’s a chance to add another notch to some quickly expanding credentials; for Wise, it’s an opportunity to win on the one level he has yet to do so.

“It’s golf, at the end of the day. If you play better than everyone else, you’re going to win,” Wise said. “That’s why I play it. That’s why I love this sport, and tomorrow is nothing different.”

Getty Images

5 thoughts from NCAA Women's Championship Day 2

By Ryan LavnerMay 19, 2018, 11:35 pm

The field is almost halfway through stroke-play qualifying at the NCAA Women’s Championship. Here are some thoughts on the first two days at Karsten Creek:

1. UCLA is on a mission. Just a year ago, the Bruins were headed home from regionals after becoming the first No. 1 seed that failed to advance out of the qualifying tournament. This year, with the core of the team still mostly intact, the Bruins have opened up a five-shot lead on top-ranked Alabama and a comfortable 16-shot cushion over Southern Cal in third place. On one of the most difficult college courses in the country, UCLA has received contributions from all four of its usual counters – standout Lilia Vu shot 68 on Saturday, while Mariel Galdiano posted a 69. Freshman Patty Tavatanakit and junior Bethany Wu also broke par. This is a strong, deep lineup that will pose issues for teams not just in stroke-play qualifying, but also the head-to-head, match-play bracket.

2. What happened to Arkansas? Riding high off their first SEC Championship and a dominant regional performance, the Razorbacks were considered one of the top threats to win the national title. But entering Sunday’s third round of stroke play, they need to hold it together just to ensure they make the top-15 cut. Arkansas is 32 over par through two rounds. The Razorbacks had shot in the 300s just once this season in the play-five, count-four format. Here at Karsten Creek, they’ve now done so in consecutive rounds.

NCAA Women’s DI Championship: Team scoring

NCAA Women’s DI Championship: Individual scoring

3. The Player of the Year race is heating up. With a decent showing at nationals, Arkansas’ Maria Fassi should have been able to wrap up the Annika Award, given annually to the top player in the country. She has six individual titles, plays a difficult schedule and is well-liked among her peers. But through two rounds she’s a whopping 15 over par while spraying it all over the map. If the Razorbacks don’t survive the 54-hole cut, neither will Fassi. That’d open the door for another player to steal the votes, whether it’s UCLA’s Vu or Wake Forest’s Jennifer Kupcho. There’s a lot still to be decided.

4. Stanford has steadied itself. One of the biggest surprises on Day 1 was the horrendous start by the Cardinal, one of just two teams to advance to match play each of the three years it’s been used to determine a national champion. They were 19 over for their first nine holes Friday, but instead of a blowup round that cost them a shot at the title, they’ve found a way to hang tough. Stanford has been just 4 over par over its last 27 holes. Andrea Lee made only one bogey during her second-round 69, Albane Valenzuela eagled the 18th hole for a 73 and senior leader Shannon Aubert – who has been a part of each postseason push – carded a 74. And so, even with its early struggles, coach Anne Walker once again has Stanford in position to reach match play.

5. Karsten Creek is identifying the best teams. The top teams in the country want a difficult host venue for NCAAs – it helps separate the field and draws an unmistakable line between the contenders and pretenders. Only one team (UCLA) is under par after 36 holes. Fewer than a dozen players are under par individually. The dearth of low scores might not be the greatest advertisement for how talented these players are, but the cream has still risen to the top so far: Five top-10 teams currently sit inside the top 7 on the leaderboard (and that doesn’t even include last year’s NCAA runner-up Northwestern). This is all any coach wants, even if the scores aren’t pretty.

Quick hits: Cheyenne Knight, part of Alabama’s vaunted 1-2-3 punch along with Lauren Stephenson and Kristen Gillman, shot rounds of 70-69 to figure in the mix for individual honors. The junior will turn pro after nationals. …  Arizona’s Bianca Pagdanganan made a hole-in-one on the 11th hole Saturday en route to a 68 that tied the low round of the day. She’s at 5-under 139, same as Knight. ... Defending champion Arizona State, which lost star Linnea Strom to the pro ranks at the halfway point of the season, is 35 over par after two rounds. … Play was delayed for nearly an hour and a half Saturday because of inclement weather.

Getty Images

Wise (21) makes Leishman (34) feel a little old

By Will GrayMay 19, 2018, 10:55 pm

DALLAS – With the final round of the AT&T Byron Nelson likely to take on a match-play feel, Marc Leishman likes his chances to close out another win – even if his opponent makes him feel a little old.

Leishman, 34, shares the lead at Trinity Forest Golf Club with 21-year-old Aaron Wise, who was the youngest player to make the cut at the tournament’s new venue. The two men will start the final round at 17 under, four shots clear of their next-closest pursuers.

Leishman played the third round alongside Wise and Brian Gay, and he originally didn’t realize just how fresh-faced his fellow co-leader is.

Full-field scores from the AT&T Byron Nelson

AT&T Byron Nelson: Articles, photos and videos

“He’s a solid player for, I heard this morning he’s only 21. I didn’t realize that,” Leishman said. “I guess I was in high school before he was born, so that’s – I don’t know. You hear guys talk about that all the time but I’ve never said that, I think. Yeah, he’s a good player.”

Wise won the 2016 NCAA individual title while at Oregon, and he opted to turn pro after his sophomore season. While he could have been capping his senior season with a return to the NCAAs next week, Wise is pleased with the career choice and remains eager for a chance to close out his first career PGA Tour win against a seasoned veteran.

“I feel like I’m in a great spot for tomorrow,” Wise said. “I feel like I’m getting some great experience for a kid this young. It’s only going to serve me well down the road.”