Levy could become next breakout star on Euro Tour

By Will GrayNovember 1, 2014, 2:36 pm

He was born in California, plays under the French flag and wears a hat brandishing his nickname: "El Toro."

He is Alexander Levy, and while his player bio may evoke quizzical looks, one thing is clear - the 24-year-old is poised to become the next breakout star on the European Tour.

Essentially off the map of professional golf less than a year ago, Levy took control of this week's BMW Masters in China with a third-round 63 to build a four-shot lead heading into Sunday's finale. Should he win, it will be his third victory on the European Tour this year - joining Rory McIlroy as the only players with three or more wins in 2014 - and his second trophy in less than a month.

Just as friend and countryman Victor Dubuisson did around this time last year, Levy appears ready to ascend from obscurity into a position to become one of Europe's next big hits.

Levy had a decorated amateur career in France, and after turning pro in 2011, he made it to the European Tour two years later, ranked outside the top 600 in the OWGR. He began this year at No. 226, then broke through to claim the Volvo China Open in April for his maiden victory, winning by four shots and beating the likes of Henrik Stenson, Ian Poulter and Francesco Molinari in the process.

The victory has served as a launching pad for Levy, whose 15 subsequent starts have netted eight top-25 finishes, including another win at the rain-shortened Portugal Masters last month. There, he took the title at the 36-hole event with rounds of 63-61.

The seeds have been planted for Levy to thrive on an even larger stage. He made his first major championship appearance at the PGA Championship this year, where he finished a respectable T-30. He has also contended this year at high-profile European Tour events like the BMW PGA Championship (T-12) and the Scottish Open (T-21).

Now No. 74 in the world, Levy will only rise further following this week's event, and he is in position to take advantage of an OWGR system in which the rich tend to get richer. He is already in the field for next week's WGC-HSBC Champions, a no-cut event, and at No. 19 in the Race to Dubai, he will continue to accrue points against elite fields through the end of the month.

The carrot at the end of the stick is a spot in the OWGR top 50 at year's end, which would allow him to build a schedule for 2015 that includes multiple stops in the U.S. - notably, The Masters.

Players in the top 50 are able to feast on invitationals and limited-field events, earning access to tournaments that others below them cannot reach, then boosting their relative standing simply by showing up. Players like Dubuisson, Jamie Donaldson, Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano and Joost Luiten have used their top 50 ranking in the last two years to play more PGA Tour events, with some even taking up special temporary membership in the States.

Whether Levy goes that route remains to be seen, but based on his play this year it appears likely the opportunity will soon be afforded to him.

While the most notable image of French golf is still Jean van de Velde wading into the Barry Burn 15 years after he gave away the Open Championship, the rising crop of French talent appears eager to leave a more positive imprint on the game. Players like Dubuisson and Levy, who have been friends since they were teenagers, are clearly talented and have translated that talent into wins against some of the game's best, with Levy on the cusp of adding to the recent trophy collection for Les Bleus.

By the time the 2018 Ryder Cup tees off at Le Golf National in Paris, Levy could be a key cog in the European wheel. Before then, though, he's on a path to become a household name in Europe - if not beyond.

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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.”