Olympic Club has a history crowning surprise champion

By Doug FergusonJune 9, 2012, 7:23 pm

Nothing ever turns out the way anyone expects when the U.S. Open goes to The Olympic Club.

Instead of a record fifth U.S. Open for Ben Hogan, Olympic delivered Jack Fleck in one of golf's biggest upsets. Arnold Palmer turned his pursuit of a record score into a royal collapse. Tom Watson had his heart broken in San Francisco when Scott Simpson ran off a late string of birdies.

The way this year is unfolding, Olympic seems like the ideal location.

Hardly anything has gone according to plan.

Tiger Woods already has won twice this year, most recently last week at the Memorial with a ball-striking clinic and a chip shot that brought back some of that magic. That made him the betting favorite to end his four-year drought in the majors with a record-tying fourth U.S. Open.

Only it's not that simple.

Two months ago, Woods won Bay Hill by five shots and became an instant favorite at the Masters. Instead of slipping on the green jacket, he turned in his worst performance as a pro at Augusta National, starting the worst three-tournament stretch of his career.

'He goes to the Masters and he fell apart because of nerves for the first time in his career,' Johnny Miller said. 'So I don't know what to think of Tiger Woods at the Open. I don't know if that was learned from Augusta, or something he can't control.'

Rory McIlroy, the defending champion, returned to No. 1 in the world just over a month ago and looked like the player to beat until the 23-year-old from Northern Ireland missed three cuts, threw a club and suddenly looked lost.

Rickie Fowler, finally a winner on the PGA Tour, was poised to take his popularity to new heights until he shot 84 at Muirfield Village playing in the second-to-last group with Woods. Phil Mickelson played in the last group of the Masters and fell out of contention when Lefty hit consecutive shots from the right side. The green jacket went to another lefty, Bubba Watson, a big hitter who never liked the notion that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

Golf is difficult to predict even in steady times. There's no telling what to expect when the 112th U.S. Open returns to The Olympic Club on June 14-17 for the fifth time. History would suggest there are more surprises in store on the golf course built on the side of a hill just south of the Golden Gate Bridge.

'You think about the past national Opens here that have been played ... and in some ways you think, `Geez, you remember more about who didn't win – what great legend didn't win an Open here –versus who did win,'' USGA executive director Mike Davis said.

Adding to the intrigue is the parity that has taken over golf over the last few years. Ever since Padraig Harrington ended the 2008 season with consecutive majors, 14 players have won the last 14 majors.

Predictions, anyone?

Perhaps the only safe bet is that Olympic won't be a pushover.

McIlroy shattered U.S. Open scoring records last year at Congressional when he reached double figures under par before he even finished his second round. Because of soft conditions from rain earlier in the week, he finished at 268 to break the 72-hole record by four shots, and his 16-under par score was four better than Woods at Pebble Beach in 2000.

The USGA didn't lose much sleep when Woods finished at 12-under 272 at Pebble Beach because no one else was under par and he won by 15.

Congressional was different. McIlroy won by eight shots, but 20 players broke par, the most since 1990 at Medinah, a par 72.

Remember, the year after Johnny Miller shot 63 to win at Oakmont in 1973, the U.S. Open was as tough as ever. Hale Irwin finished at 7-over par and still won by two shots at Winged Foot.

Payback time? Davis almost guaranteed a tougher U.S. Open, though not from anything the USGA has cooked up.

'We're trying to make it the toughest test of the year. It didn't happen last year,' Davis said. 'I would say most of that was caused by Mother Nature. What most people don't understand is that it doesn't matter how you set up a course. If you give them the ability to know when the ball lands it's going to stop, it's significantly easier.

'That's what is going to make the U.S. Open this year – without us trying to retaliate – that much harder,' he said. 'When the ball lands, whether it hits the green or in the fairway, it's going to roll. You have to think about what happens when it lands.'

Miller was a junior member at Olympic as a teenager, and he was low amateur in 1966 the year Billy Casper chased down mistake-prone Palmer. He knows what to expect from Olympic, with its tight fairways that bend one way and slope another, and its tiny greens.

'Congressional, it was a good course, but it was almost like a Tour course,' Miller said. 'You looked at the scores that were be being shot, it was like playing on a good, strong Tour course. This is a whole different ball game, and more like being back at a U.S. Open. ... It's not going to be so much fun and games out there. It's going to be hard work, and I think a sterner test.

'Rory basically won waltzing around there like it was no big deal,' he said. 'I just don't see Olympic Club ... being something easy for anybody.'

Woods recently played a practice round and was amazed to see a 9-iron hit the green and bounce as high as the top of the flagstick. Olympic is nearly 200 yards longer than when Lee Janzen won at even-par 280 in 1998. Some of the fairways have been shifted. The greens have been resurfaced. The 520-yard opening hole is now a par 4, while the 522-yard 17th hole is now a par 5. An additional tee was built on the par-5 16th hole, making it 670 yards, the longest hole in U.S. Open history.

'It's going to be a hell of a test,' Woods said.

Then again, that's that the U.S. Open is supposed to be.

'When they set courses up tough, firm and fast, you're put to the test emotionally,' former British Open champion Stewart Cink said. 'Hanging in there becomes a big challenge. The task feels insurmountable, unattainable. Olympic is a good example. They have fairways sloping one way or the other, and eventually it start to feel like you're outmatched.'

Congressional was an exception last year because of the rain, though hardly anyone would complain about the quality of winner it produced.

McIlroy, a 23-year-old from Northern Ireland with that unique combination of power and balance, had been trending in this direction. He shot 63 at St. Andrews the summer before. He had the 54-hole lead at the Masters last year until imploding in the final round. But he showed resiliency in bouncing back with a performance unrivaled to win the U.S. Open and become the youngest major champion since Woods won the Masters in 1997 at age 21.

Comparisons to Woods, who already had won 10 majors and the career Grand Slam twice before turning 30, can be dangerous. McIlroy is finding that out the hard way, especially after missing the cut three times in a row. The last weekend off at least gave him time to see Olympic before arriving for his title defense, and then he headed to Tennessee for the St. Jude Classic, adding the tournament with hopes of getting back into form.

Woods' form couldn't be any better. The question is how long it will last.

He is desperate to win his 15th major and get back on track in pursuit of the record 18 won by Jack Nicklaus. But he's not the only player in dire need of a major. Luke Donald is going on his 47th week at No. 1 in the world, longer than all but five players in the 25-year history of the ranking. All that's missing is a major. Lee Westwood and Steve Stricker head the list of best without a major, along with Sergio Garcia.

Phil Mickelson holds the wrong kind of U.S. Open record – five times a runner-up, more than anyone.

Don't be surprised if Woods or Mickelson get into contention. And don't be surprised if they lose out to someone not quite as famous.

Olympic has a knack for doing that in the U.S. Open.

The four U.S. Open champions at Olympic combined for seven majors in their career. The four players who were runner-up combined for 27.

Getty Images

Rose tries to ignore scenarios, focus on winning

By Rex HoggardSeptember 23, 2018, 12:59 am

ATLANTA – No one has more to play for than Justin Rose on Sunday at the Tour Championship.

The Englishman will begin the day three strokes behind front-runner Tiger Woods after a third-round 68 that could have been much worse after he began his day with back-to-back bogeys.

Winning the tournament will be Rose’s top priority, but there’s also the lingering question of the FedExCup and the $10 million bonus, which he is currently projected to claim.


Projected FedExCup standings

Full-field scores from the Tour Championship

Tour Championship: Articles, photos and videos


“The way I look at tomorrow is that I have many scenarios in play. I have the FedExCup in play. I have all of that to distract me,” Rose said. “But yet, I'm three back. I think that's my objective tomorrow is to come out and play good, positive golf and try and chase down the leader and win this golf tournament. I think in some ways that'll help my other task of trying to win the FedExCup. It'll keep me on the front foot and playing positive golf.”

Although there are many scenarios for Rose to win the season-long title, if Woods wins the Tour Championship, Rose would need to finish fifth or better to claim the cup.

There’s also the top spot in the Official World Golf Ranking to consider. Rose overtook Dustin Johnson for No. 1 in the world with his runner-up finish at the BMW Championship two weeks ago. He will retain the top spot unless Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka or Johnson win the finale and he falls down the leaderboard on Sunday.

Getty Images

McIlroy needs putter to heat up to catch Woods

By Rex HoggardSeptember 23, 2018, 12:29 am

ATLANTA – Although Rory McIlroy is three strokes behind Tiger Woods at the Tour Championship and tied for second place he had the look of a man with a secret when he left East Lake on Saturday.

Trying to play catch up against Woods is never ideal, but McIlroy’s confidence stemmed from a tee-to-green game that has been unrivaled for three days.

“I definitely think today and the first day were similar,” said McIlroy, whose 66 included birdies at two of his final three holes. “I gave myself plenty of chances, and I think the biggest thing today was only just that one bogey. Got to put your ball in the fairway, put yourself in position, and for the most part, I did that today.”


Projected FedExCup standings

Full-field scores from the Tour Championship

Tour Championship: Articles, photos and videos


For the week McIlroy ranks first in strokes gained: off the tee, third in strokes gained: approach to the green and second in greens in regulation. But to catch Woods, who he will be paired with, he’ll need a much better day on the greens.

The Northern Irishman needed 30 putts on Day 2 and ranks 23rd, out of 30 players, in strokes gained: putting.

McIlroy skipped the first playoff event, opting instead for an extra week at home to work on his swing and the move has paid off.

“I hit the ball well. My wedge play has been really good,” he said. “I've done a lot of work on it the last few weeks, and it seems to have paid off.”

Getty Images

Glover trails Straka at Web.com Tour Championship

By Associated PressSeptember 23, 2018, 12:19 am

ATLANTIC BEACH, Fla. – Sepp Straka moved into position Saturday to earn a PGA Tour card in the Web.com Tour Championship, shooting a 7-under 64 to take the third-round lead.

With the top 25 earners in the four-event Web.com Tour Finals getting PGA Tour cards Sunday, Straka birdied the final three holes to reach 18-under 195 - a stroke ahead of Curtis Luck, Lucas Glover and Denny McCarthy at Atlantic Beach Country Club.

''It's always good to get an extra birdie in late. I got three of them to finish, which was nice,'' Straka said. ''It's very bunched up there, so you can't really take off, you've got to keep the pedal down and see where you end up at the end.''

Straka entered the week tied for 80th in the card race with $2,744. The 25-year-old former Georgia player from Austria won the KC Golf Classic in August for his first Web.com Tour title. He finished 31st on the money list to advance to the four-tournament series.

''My ball-striking is really good,'' Straka said. ''It's been good all week. It's been really solid. I really haven't gotten in a whole lot of trouble and have been able to capitalize on a good number of chances with the putter. Hit a couple of bad putts today, but some really good ones to make up for it.''


Full-field scores from the Web.com Tour Championship


Luck also shot 64. The 22-year-old Australian went into the week 16th with $41,587.

''Obviously, it just comes down to keeping that momentum going and trying not to change anything,'' Luck said. ''That's the really important thing and I felt like I did that really well. I played really aggressive on the back nine, still went after a lot of shots and I hit it close a lot out there.''

Glover had a 68. The 2009 U.S. Open champion entered the week 40th with $17,212.

McCarthy shot 67. He already has wrapped up a card, earning $75,793 in the first three events to get to 11th in the standings.

The series features the top 75 players from the Web.com regular-season money list, Nos. 126-200 in the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup standings, and non-members with enough money to have placed in the top 200. The top-25 finishers on the Web.com regular-season money list are competing against each other for tour priority, with regular-season earnings counting in their totals. The other players are fighting for the 25 cards based on series earnings.

Getty Images

Woods' dominance evokes an old, familiar feeling

By Rex HoggardSeptember 23, 2018, 12:14 am

ATLANTA – It felt so familiar – the roars, the fist pumps, the frenzied scramble to keep up with a leaderboard that was quickly tilting in Tiger Woods’ direction.

For the handful of players who were around when Woods made a mysterious and maddening game seem simple, it was like old times, times that weren’t necessarily good for anyone not named Tiger.

“I’m kind of nostalgic,” admitted Paul Casey, who turned pro in 2000, when Woods won the U.S. Open by 15 strokes, one of his nine PGA Tour victories that year.

Casey’s 66 on Day 3 at the Tour Championship vaulted him into a tie for sixth place, but as the Englishman quickly vetted the math he knew those numbers were nothing more than window dressing.

“Sixty-four is my best on a Sunday which puts me at 11 [under], so if he’s 12 I need to shoot my career best in the final round and he needs to do something very un-Tiger-like,” Casey laughed. “I think I’m just posturing for position.”

Casey wasn’t giving up. In fact, given that he outdueled Woods earlier this year to win the Valspar Championship he could have hedged his comments and left the door cracked however slightly. But he’s seen, and heard, this too many times to allow competitive necessity to cloud reality.

On Saturday at East Lake, Tiger Woods was his best version. Throughout this most recent comeback he’s offered glimpses of the old guy, the guy whose name atop a leaderboard echoed through locker rooms for the better part of two decades. After starting the day tied for the lead with Justin Rose, Tiger quickly separated himself from the pack with a birdie at the first.

He added another at the third and by the time he birdied the seventh hole, his sixth birdie of the day, he’d extended that lead to five shots and was sending an unmistakable message that reached well beyond the steamy confines of East Lake.


Projected FedExCup standings

Full-field scores from the Tour Championship

Tour Championship: Articles, photos and videos


This was what so many had waited for. This was the Tiger that Casey and others grew up dreading, a machine that never misses iron shots and makes clutch putts look like tap-ins.

“The crowds were electric,” said Rose, who was paired with Woods. “He was running the tables there. He was hitting good shots and making the conversion putts.”

Woods did come back to earth after his blistering start, playing his final 10 holes in 1 over par, but that did little to change the mood as the season moved to within 18 holes of the finish line.

He would finish with a round-of-the-day 65 for a three-stroke lead over Rose and Rory McIlroy. The next closest players were a dozen strokes back, including Casey at 5 under par who didn’t need to be reminded of Woods’ 54-hole conversion rate.

There are no guarantees in sports but Tiger with a 54-hole lead has been about as close to a lock as one will find this side of Las Vegas. He’s 42-for-44 when going into the final round with the outright lead and the last time he blew a 54-hole lead was at the 2009 PGA Championship.

Of course, he hasn’t had a 54-hole lead since the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. Truth is, he hasn’t had much of anything since ’13 when his dominance was sidetracked by an ailing back. As intimidating as Woods’ play has been this week there was an unmistakable sense of, let’s call it curiosity.

Asked if Woods’ lead felt different than it may have a decade ago, Rose’s response was telling. “Maybe,” he allowed after a pause. “It's a little more unknown now. Obviously his history, his statistics from this point are impeccable. They're incredible. But he's human, and there's a lot on it for him tomorrow, as well as the rest of us.”

Rose wasn’t trying to trick himself into thinking the impossible was possible, although many have when they’ve found themselves in similar positions, it was simply the truth. Woods has had multiple chances this season to complete the comeback and he’s come up short each time.

It was a poor iron shot off the 72nd tee at the Valspar Championship and an even worse drive a week later at Bay Hill’s 16th hole. It was a misplayed chip late on the back nine at The Open and a collection of missed putts at the PGA Championship, although in his defense it’s unlikely anyone could have caught Brooks Koepka at Bellerive.

Nor was Rose being disrespectful. It’s simple math, really, and Woods’ body of work to this point, although wildly impressive considering how far he’s come in 12 months both physically and competitively, paints a clear picture. Given multiple chances to break through the victory ceiling he’s failed to deliver the way he did before injury and multiple back procedures.

“I've felt very comfortable when I got into the mix there at Tampa even though it was very early in my start to this year. And because of that, I felt comfortable when I got to Bay Hill, (and) when I grabbed the lead at The Open Championship,” Woods said. “Things that didn't really feel abnormal, even though it's been years, literally years, since I've been in those spots, but I think I've been in those spots enough times that muscle memory, I guess I remembered it, and I felt comfortable in those spots.”

In many ways the script couldn’t have been written any better for Woods. It’s the bottom of the ninth, two outs and the bases are loaded for the 14-time major champion. Hero time, his time.

He’s been here so many times in his career and succeeded more times than not, and this new, reimagined version has the ultimate chance to complete what would arguably be the greatest comeback in sports history.

The ultimate test still remains, but for 18 holes on Saturday it felt so familiar.