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Punch Shot: Burning questions for 118th U.S. Open

By Golf Channel DigitalJune 13, 2018, 7:00 pm

In advance of the 118th U.S. Open, GolfChannel.com writers sound off on burning questions as players ready for a stern major championship test at Shinnecock Hills. Here's what our writers think about a myriad topics:

THE MONDAY MORNING HEADLINE WILL BE …

REX HOGGARD: “Rory Proves Up to the Test.” Fourteen years ago, the headline writers were not kind to the USGA, leaning in hard to criticize the association when Shinnecock Hills became unplayable during the final round of the 2004 U.S. Open. Lesson learned.

RYAN LAVNER: “Gritty Day Grinds Out U.S. Open Victory, Becomes POY Favorite.” All signs seem to point to Day grabbing major No. 2 this week. He’s hungry, in form and, with Jordan Spieth currently searching, the best putter/scrambler on the planet.

WILL GRAY: “Ice Man Strikes Again.” Henrik Stenson, whose quietly consistent play is not receiving nearly enough attention, will rely on elite ball-striking and a nifty short game en route to major No. 2.

RANDALL MELL: “Dustin Johnson Tames Shinnecock Hills with Second U.S. Open Triumph.”


WHO/WHAT WILL BE THE BIGGEST SURPRISE …

REX HOGGARD: There are few things in golf you can count on, but players complaining about a U.S. Open setup is one of life’s constants. If initial reactions are any indication, this championship will be the outlier, with players almost universally applauding both the setup and the course. Surprisingly, that won’t change.

RYAN LAVNER: Brooks Koepka. No player has defended his U.S. Open title since Curtis Strange in the late-80s, but Shinnecock is set up perfectly for Brooks Koepka to make a serious run at ending that streak.

WILL GRAY: Sam Burns. The former LSU standout has been impressive since turning pro, and he’ll be a regular fixture on the PGA Tour next season. But after winning a loaded Memphis sectional by five shots, don’t be surprised if he turns a few heads this week.

RANDALL MELL: Luke List has been popping on leaderboards on some tough courses all year, giving himself chances that should add up to confidence coming to Shinnecock Hills.


WHO/WHAT WILL BE THE BIGGEST DIASPPOINTMENT …

REX HOGGARD: Although this week’s championship begins with so much promise, with six players poised to be No. 1 in the world ranking on Monday depending on the outcome at Shinnecock Hills, don’t expect all the stars to shine. Dustin Johnson, the current No. 1, will be too drained following last week’s victory in Memphis, and Jordan Spieth, the 2015 champion, will still be searching for answers.

RYAN LAVNER: That there won’t be many complaints. Whining is the soundtrack to any U.S. Open, and it makes for better copy, but the belief here is that this week sadly will be devoid of any kvetching. The course is arguably the best on the U.S. Open rota. The weather should be perfect. Many of the top players are on their game. The pieces are in place, at least, for a complaint-free week.

WILL GRAY: Jordan Spieth. He can turn on a dime at a moment’s notice, and he has plenty of fond USGA memories. But right now there are too many question marks heading into one of the game’s most high-profile crucibles.

RANDALL MELL: Jordan Spieth will find his best form again, but he won’t find it in the wind on a track as tough as Shinnecock Hills.


WHAT WILL BE THE WINNING SCORE …

REX HOGGARD: There are many who hope the U.S. Open’s return to Shinnecock Hills will mark the return of a tougher test compared to recent championships at Erin Hills and Chambers Bay. They will be disappointed. Shinnecock Hills will be difficult, but the winning score will be under par (5 under).

RYAN LAVNER: 7 under. The opening round should be the windiest, but it’ll also be the softest, after a wet Wednesday. Other than that: Sun, light breeze, moderate temperatures. Seven under is the sweet spot for an organization trying to avoid another black eye.

WILL GRAY: The breeze is expected to blow, but the USGA will be keen to keep things under control in the wake of 2004. I think 6 under lifts the trophy.

RANDALL MELL: 8 under. The USGA will err on the side of caution, making Shinecock Hills soft enough to avoid the debacle of ’04, but tough enough to be compelling.

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Bhatia loses U.S. Am match after caddie-cart incident

By Ryan LavnerAugust 16, 2018, 2:21 am

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – One of the hottest players in amateur golf had his U.S. Amateur run end Wednesday under unusual circumstances.

Akshay Bhatia, the 16-year-old left-hander who has been dominating the junior golf circuit over the past year, squandered a late lead in his eventual 19-hole loss to Bradford Tilley in the Round of 64.

Bhatia was all square against Tilley as they played Pebble Beach’s par-5 14th hole. After knocking his second shot onto the green, Bhatia and his caddie, Chris Darnell, stopped to use the restroom. Bhatia walked up to the green afterward, but Darnell asked what he thought was a USGA official for a ride up to the green.

“The gentleman was wearing a USGA pullover,” Darnell explained afterward. “I asked if I could get a ride to the green to keep up pace, and he said yes. So I hopped on the back, got up to the green, hopped off and thought nothing of it.”

Conditions of the competition prohibit players and caddies from riding on any form of transportation during a stipulated round unless authorized.

It turns out that the cart that Darnell rode on was not driven by a USGA official. Rather, it was just a volunteer wearing USGA apparel. A rules official who was in the area spotted the infraction and assessed Bhatia an adjustment penalty, so instead of winning the hole with a birdie-4 to move 1 up, the match remained all square.


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Even more interesting was what Darnell said happened earlier in the match.

“I had already seen the other caddie in our group do it on the ninth hole,” Darnell said. “Same thing – USGA pullover, drove him from the bathroom up to the fairway – so I assumed it was fine. I didn’t point it out at the time because everything seemed kosher. He had the USGA stuff on, and I didn’t think anything of it.”

Bhatia won the 15th hole to go 1 up, but lost the 17th and 19th holes with bogeys to lose the match. He didn’t blame the outcome on the cart incident.  

“What can you do? I’ll have plenty of opportunities to play in this tournament, so I’m not too upset about it,” he said. “It’s just frustrating because I deserved to win that match. That wasn’t the outcome I wanted, but I can’t do anything about it.”

Bhatia, of Wake Forest, N.C., has been a dominant force in the junior ranks, going back-to-back at the Junior PGA (including this dramatic hole-out), capturing the AJGA Polo, taking the Sage Valley Invitational and reaching the finals of the U.S. Junior.

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1, 2, 3 out: Thornberry, Suh, Morikawa lose at U.S. Am

By Ryan LavnerAugust 16, 2018, 1:14 am

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – The top three players in the world had a tough afternoon Wednesday at Pebble Beach.

Braden Thornberry, Justin Suh and Collin Morikawa – Nos. 1-3, respectively, in the World Amateur Golf Ranking – all lost their Round of 64 matches at the U.S. Amateur.

Thornberry lost, 2 and 1, to Jesus Montenegro of Argentina. As the No. 1 amateur in the world, the Ole Miss senior was in line to receive the McCormack Medal, which would exempt him into both summer Opens in 2019, provided he remains amateur. But now he’ll need to wait and see how the rankings shake out.

Suh and Morikawa could have played each other in the Round of 32, but instead they were both heading home early.


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Suh, a junior at USC, never led in his 1-up loss to Harrison Ott, while Cal's Morikawa lost to another Vanderbilt player, John Augenstein, in 19 holes.

Englishman Matthew Jordan is the fourth-ranked player in the world, but he didn’t make the 36-hole stroke-play cut.

The highest-ranked player remaining is Oklahoma State junior Viktor Hovland, who is ranked fifth. With his college coach, Alan Bratton, on the bag, Hovland beat his Cowboys teammate, Hayden Wood, 3 and 2, to reach the Round of 32.

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Fiery Augenstein outduels Morikawa at U.S. Amateur

By Ryan LavnerAugust 16, 2018, 12:55 am

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Around the Vanderbilt golf team John Augenstein’s nickname is “Flash,” and it’s easy to see why.

The swing loaded with speed.

The on-course charisma.

The big shot in the big moment.

The Commodores junior added another highlight to his growing collection Wednesday, when he defeated world No. 3 Collin Morikawa in 19 holes during a Round of 64 match at the U.S. Amateur.

Out of sorts early at Pebble Beach, Augenstein was 2 down to Morikawa after butchering the short seventh and then misplaying a shot around the green on 8.

Standing on the ninth tee, he turned to Vanderbilt assistant coach/caddie Gator Todd: "I need to play the best 10 holes of my life to beat Collin."

And did he?

“I don’t know,” he said later, smirking, “but I did enough.”

Augenstein won the ninth hole after Morikawa dumped his approach shot into the hazard, drained a 30-footer on 10 to square the match and then took his first lead when he rolled in a 10-footer on 14.

One down with three holes to go, Morikawa stuffed his approach into 16 while Augenstein, trying to play a perfect shot, misjudged the wind and left himself in a difficult position, short and right of the green. Augenstein appeared visibly frustrated once he found his ball, buried in the thick ryegrass short of the green. He told Todd that he didn’t think he’d be able to get inside of Morikawa’s shot about 6 feet away, but he dumped his pitch shot onto the front edge, rode the slope and trickled it into the cup for an unlikely birdie.

“Come on!” he yelled, high-fiving Todd and tossing his wedge at his bag.

“It was beautiful,” Todd said. “I’m not sure how he did that, but pretty cool that it went in.”  


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Morikawa answered by making birdie, then won the 17th with a par before both players halved the home hole with birdies.

On the first extra hole, Augenstein hit his approach to 15 feet while Morikawa left it short. Morikawa raced his first putt by 6 feet and then missed the comebacker to lose the match.

It may not have been the best 10-hole stretch of Augenstein’s career, but after that pep talk on 9 tee, he went 4 under to the house.

“He’s a fiery little dude,” Morikawa said of his 5-foot-8-inch opponent. “You don’t want to get him on the wrong side because you never know what’s going to happen. He’s not going to give shots away.”

The first-round match was a rematch of the Western Amateur quarterfinals two weeks ago, where Augenstein also won, that time by a 4-and-2 margin.

“It’s the most fun format and where I can be my true self – emotional and aggressive and beat people,” Augenstein said.

That’s what he did at the 2017 SECs, where he won the deciding points in both the semifinals and the finals. He starred again a few weeks later at the NCAA Championship, last season went 3-0 in SEC match play, and now has earned a reputation among his teammates as a primetime player.

“I’ve hit a lot of big shots and putts in my career,” said Augenstein, ranked 26th in the world after recently winning the Players Amateur. “I get locked in and focused, and there’s not a shot that I don’t think I can pull off. I’m not scared to fail.”

The comeback victory against Morikawa – a three-time winner last season at Cal and one of the best amateurs in the world – didn’t surprise Todd. He’s seen firsthand how explosive Augenstein can be on the course.

“He’s just fiery,” Todd said. “He does things under pressure that you’re not supposed to do. He’s just a special kid.”

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Fowler (oblique) withdraws from playoff opener

By Will GrayAugust 15, 2018, 8:44 pm

The injury that slowed Rickie Fowler at last week's PGA Championship will keep him out of the first event of the PGA Tour's postseason.

Fowler was reportedly hampered by an oblique injury at Bellerive Country Club, where he started the third round two shots off the lead but faded to a tie for 12th. He confirmed the injury Tuesday in an Instagram post, adding that an MRI revealed a partial tear to his right oblique muscle.

According to Fowler, the injury also affected him at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, where he tied for 17th. After receiving the test results, he opted to withdraw from The Northern Trust next week at Ridgewood Country Club in New Jersey.

"My team and I feel like it's best not to play next week in the Northern Trust," Fowler wrote. "I will be back healthy and competitive ASAP for the FedEx Cup and more than ready for the Ryder Cup!!!"

Fowler is one of eight players who earned automatic spots on the U.S. Ryder Cup team when the qualifying window closed last week. His next opportunity to tee it up would be at the 100-man Dell Technologies Championship, where Fowler won in 2015.

Fowler has 12 top-25 finishes in 18 starts, highlighted by runner-up finishes at both the OHL Classic at Mayakoba in the fall and at the Masters. He is currently 17th in the season-long points race, meaning that he's assured of starts in each of the first three playoff events regardless of performance and in good position to qualify for the 30-man Tour Championship for the fourth time in the last five years.