Punch Shot: First-time major winner in 2015?

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 3, 2015, 2:00 pm

Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth are the obvious choices to become first-time major winners in 2015. But is there anyone else we might be overlooking? Our writers debate:

By JASON SOBEL

Has there ever been a veteran player more primed to win his first major than Rickie Fowler?

OK, you could make the case that a guy like Phil Mickelson, with so many close calls before his 2004 Masters breakthrough, was ready for that moment, but Fowler proved in 2014 that he plays his best golf when the spotlight is shining brightest.

Though he didn’t win, Fowler posted top-five finishes at each of the four majors. That in itself should be considered an impressive leap into the game’s upper echelon.

I’ve long believed that what separated the top tier of players from the next tier is that the former is capable of winning anyplace, anytime. Think about it: How many current players have an equal chance of winning any of the four majors? There aren’t many, but Fowler certainly fits that description. You wouldn’t be any more or less surprised if he won the Masters than the Open Championship.

I still think Sergio Garcia wins multiple major titles – and his first one isn’t far off. Jordan Spieth is going to win one fairly soon; Jason Day will, too. Only one player, though, can be next. Give me the guy who’s come the closest in the last four of 'em.


By RYAN LAVNER

No one really knows what to expect at this year’s U.S. Open at Chambers Bay – after all, the only guys who have played there in competition were the 2010 U.S. Amateur participants. (And Jordan Spieth didn’t even make match play.)

So for a breakthrough major winner, why not a guy who has a proven record at golf’s most grueling major – a player with THREE top fives in the last four years? That’s right, for all of the injury questions surrounding Jason Day, one thing you can almost always count on is a strong performance at the year’s second major.

Overall in majors he already has seven top 10s, not a surprise given the strengths of his all-around game. He’s long off the tee. He hits a lot of greens. He’s a terrific scrambler. And he’s a better putter than given credit for (30th on Tour in 2014).

If Day is healthy come June – not a certainty, of course – then he’s my favorite to win the U.S. Open. 


By REX HOGGARD

Although he’s only played in a half dozen Grand Slam tilts – and to be historically accurate, his tie for fourth place at last year’s U.S. Open was little more than a spirited run at “B” flight honors considering Martin Kaymer’s Pinehurst masterpiece – Brooks Koepka is the most complete player vying for his first major championship.

At 24, Koepka arrives on the PGA Tour this season via a winding road that featured stops in Kenya, the Czech Republic and dozens of other points.

On paper, Koepka has all the markings of a major player, including a power game (he ranked sixth last year on Tour in driving distance and 23rd in the more-revealing strokes gained: tee-to-green category) that plays well at most of the modern Grand Slam venues.

He has also shown a surprisingly mature ability to refine the parts of his game that need improvement, particularly around the greens.

However, what will separate Koepka from a deep pack of would-be first-time major winners (a list that includes Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth and Jimmy Walker) will be a resume forged around the globe.

By taking the road less travelled through the European Tour, Koepka proved he has an added quality that can’t be measured and is crucial at any major championship, the ability to overcome adversity.


By RANDALL MELL

Patrick Reed is my pick.

His limited major championship record isn’t so impressive yet. Statistically, he wasn’t great in any category his first two seasons on Tour. But that’s all trumped by his bravado and belief he’s destined for something big. There’s just no fear in him. From his boldly proclaiming he’s a top-five player to his “shhhhh-shing” the gallery at the Ryder Cup, the guy won’t be afraid of the moment. Reed, 24, will be ready to own it when he’s there at the end of a major with a chance to win.

The Masters and British Open at St. Andrews might take more experience, more knowledge, to win, but I wouldn’t put it past Reed to claim one of those. I like him at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, where Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson showed you don’t have to be ultra-straight to have a chance.


By WILL GRAY

After a two-year ascent through the professional ranks that basically wore out his passport, Brooks Koepka is ready to make another leap in 2015 – to the title of major champion.

Koepka has all of the attributes you look for when trying to identify future stars: long off the tee, accurate into the greens. He has performed well under pressure and beat an elite field during the European Tour’s Race to Dubai to cap a successful 2014. More importantly, though, he has the brashness of youth, and at 24 years old will not shy away from the game’s biggest stages.

Koepka is embarking on his first full season on the PGA Tour, one which he began with a pair of top-10 finishes this fall and which will include starts in all four majors. Can he break through where Jordan Spieth fell just short last year and win in his first try at Augusta National? That might be a tall task. But can he overpower a course like Chambers Bay, St. Andrews or Whistling Straits? I like his chances.

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Former champ Z. Johnson surges at Valero

By Will GrayApril 20, 2018, 7:31 pm

Midway through his opening round at the Valero Texas Open, Zach Johnson appeared far closer to a missed cut than a spot on the leaderboard.

Johnson initially struggled in the winds at TPC San Antonio, playing his first 13 holes in 3 over. But he eagled No. 14 and closed with three more birdies to post a 2-under 70, then went unconscious during a second-round 65 where he made six birdies over his first 10 holes.

It added up to a 9-under total at the halfway point, and instead of packing his bags the two-time major champ now shares the lead with Ryan Moore.

"You just never know. That's the beauty of this game," Johnson told reporters. "I didn't have anything going putting-wise. I felt like I was hitting some solid shots and wasn't getting rewarded, and you've just got to stay in it. You've got to persevere, grind it out, fight for pars. Shoot, I made some good pars all while being 3 over. You just never know."

Johnson won this event in both 2008 and 2009, but that was when it was held across town at La Cantera Golf Club. Since the switch to TPC San Antonio in 2010, he has only one top-10 finish and two missed cuts, including last year's early exit with consecutive rounds of 74.

But Friday he played like a man unaware of the venue shift, with four straight birdies on Nos. 12-15 and a hole-out eagle from the greenside bunker on the par-4 fifth hole. His closing bogey on No. 9 was his first dropped shot in the last 25 holes.

"The confidence is there, and when you can step on the tee with this kind of wind, you trust your clubs and trust your ball, that's pretty important," Johnson said. "I felt good. It was hard, I'm not going to deny that. That was one of the better 27-hole stretches that I've had in a long time."

Johnson's 65 was his first sub-70 score since an opening-round 69 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, a span of 12 stroke-play rounds. The veteran has made every cut in 11 starts this season, but his T-8 finish at the RSM Classic in November remains his only top-10 finish.

"I felt really good coming into the week," Johnson said. "Confidence was there, it just wasn't showing up on the scorecard."

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U.S. Open champ Koepka (wrist) to return at Zurich

By Will GrayApril 20, 2018, 7:04 pm

U.S. Open champ Brooks Koepka will make his first start in nearly four months at next week's Zurich Classic of New Orleans.

Koepka injured his left wrist late last year, finishing last at both the 18-man Hero World Challenge and 34-man Sentry Tournament of Champions. He hasn't played since Kapalua, having been diagnosed with a partially torn Extensor Carpi Ulnaris (ECU) tendon in his wrist, and earlier this month missed the Masters for the first time since 2014.

But according to an Associated Press report, Koepka will return to action at next week's team event where he will pair with veteran Marc Turnesa, who lives near Koepka in South Florida and whose lone PGA Tour win came at the 2008 Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.

"It feels like I've been out for six months," said Koepka, who reportedly didn't touch a club for 91 days. "I still have confidence. I feel like I can win next week."

Koepka's return means TPC Louisiana will be the first course to host all four current major champions since the Tour Championship in September. Patrick Reed will make his first start since winning the Masters when he pairs with Patrick Cantlay, while Open champ Jordan Spieth will team with fellow Texan Ryan Palmer and PGA champ Justin Thomas joins with his former Alabama teammate, Bud Cauley.

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Garcia tosses driver, likely to miss Valero cut

By Will GrayApril 20, 2018, 6:49 pm

It wasn't quite to the level of his watery meltdown earlier this month at the Masters, but Sergio Garcia still got frustrated during the second round of the Valero Texas Open - and his driver paid the price.

Garcia had a hand in redesigning the AT&T Oaks Course along with Greg Norman several years ago, but this marked his first return to TPC San Antonio since 2010. After an opening-round 74, Garcia arrived to the tee of the short par-4 fifth hole and decided to get aggressive with driver in hand.

When his shot sailed well left, a heated Garcia chucked the club deep into the bushes that lined the tee box:

It took considerable effort for Garcia to find and retrieve the club amid the branches, and once he did things only got worse. He appeared to shank a chip once he got up to his ball, leading to a bogey on one of the easiest holes on a demanding track.

Garcia closed out his round with four straight pars, and at 2 over he was one shot outside the projected cut line as the afternoon wave began play. Should Garcia make an early exit, it would mark the first time he missed consecutive cuts on the PGA Tour since 2003, when he sat out the weekend at the AT&T Byron Nelson, Fort Worth Invitational and Memorial Tournament in successive weeks.

Garcia entered the week ranked No. 10 in the world, and he was the only top-20 player among the 156-man field. He missed the cut at the Masters in defense of his title after carding an octuple-bogey 13 on the 15th hole during the opening round.

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Cut Line: Poults' Ryder rise; Slow play plague

By Rex HoggardApril 20, 2018, 5:55 pm

In this week’s edition, Colonial enjoys a sponsorship reprieve, the Ryder Cup gets an early boost and it’s time for officials at the Zurich Classic to consider relocation.

Made Cut

See you in September. Just when you thought it might be too early to start the biennial Ryder Cup build up, Ian Poulter, Europe’s own Mr. September, gave the Continent something to celebrate with another solid finish last week at the RBC Heritage.

Although he failed to convert a 54-hole lead, tying for seventh after a closing 75, he earned enough points to move onto the European team bubble (world points), just behind current automatic qualifier Alex Noren.

That the English thorn in America’s Ryder Cup side made his move one week after Patrick Reed wrapped up his spot on the team with his victory at the Masters is all the reason one needs to imagine the possibilities.

Note to U.S. captain Jim Furyk: You can probably pencil in your opening match of Reed-Jordan Spieth vs. Poulter-Rory McIlroy. Oh, and Sunday’s singles – Reed vs. Poulter – as well.

Don’t mess with Texas. Although the PGA Tour is still a few weeks away from unveiling the overhauled 2018-19 schedule, a few more pieces fell into place this week.

According to multiple sources, officials at Colonial are poised to announce a new sponsorship agreement with Charles Schwab Corporation.

There had been some handwringing that the Fort Worth staple, which needed to scramble this season to find replacement sponsors when Dean & DeLuca ended its sponsorship of the event just two years into a six-year agreement, would be the victim of poor timing when the music stopped.

But officials are poised to announce the new long-term sponsorship deal on Monday and sources also confirmed that the event will remain in May, which had been another concern on the imminent overhaul of the Tour schedule.

Next up for the Tour: finding sponsors for The National and Houston Open.


Made Cut-Did Not Finish (MDF)

Location, location, location. The high on Friday in Farmingdale, N.Y., topped out at 47 degrees.

Cut Line doesn’t have to explain to his friends in the northeast how long winter has lingered this season, but it’s worth pointing out that with the PGA Championship moving to May next year these long cold spells could impact conditions at future venues, like Bethpage Black, which will host the 2019 PGA.

Although this year’s PGA, which will be played in August at Bellerive Country Club, won’t be impacted, when you consider that three of the next six championships are scheduled to be played in northern states, it’s beginning to seem more likely that geography is not on the PGA of America’s side.

Bayou breakthrough. If the field for this year’s Zurich Classic is any indication, the team format that officials introduced in 2017 remains popular, which is an encouraging sign for golf in New Orleans.


It’s time now for tournament officials to continue that progress and break free of TPC Louisiana, an uninspired layout that’s too far removed from the French Quarter and not exactly popular with players.

About a year ago, officials opened the South Course at City Park, a community-based program modeled after the East Lake project in Atlanta with a mission to revitalize City Park and the surrounding neighborhoods.

For years, insiders have considered the City Park layout, which was designed by Rees Jones, an alternative to TPC Louisiana. It’s time to stop talking about moving the event to City Park and make it happen. The tournament deserves better. The city deserves better.


Tweet(s) of the week: We go with a pair of hot takes from two of the game’s most insightful and thoughtful types on what remains one of golf’s most talked-about subjects – slow play.


Missed Cut

Money trail. During his last year as commissioner of the PGA Tour, Tim Finchem earned a combined income of over $9 million.

According to the circuit’s tax forms filed for 2016, Finchem made $4.33 million in “reportable compensation” from the Tour and another $4.74 million from “related organizations.” He also earned $181,784 in “other compensation.”

Compared to 2015, when Finchem earned $5.9 million in combined income, that’s a healthy bump. To be fair, when Finchem retired after nearly 20 years of leading the circuit most observers agreed that the Tour’s unprecedented growth during his tenure justified his salary, and compared to other professional sports leagues the commissioner’s “take home” was not out of the ordinary.

It is, however, worth noting that Finchem earned more than just one player in 2016, Dustin Johnson, who narrowly clipped the commissioner with $9.3 million in on-course earnings. It’s good to be the commish, or former commish.