Els' journey culminates in emotional British Open win

By Jason SobelJuly 22, 2012, 8:26 pm

LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England – There is a large, square practice green at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, just across a brief swath of pavement from the famous clubhouse and directly adjacent to lodging called the Dormy House, which can accommodate up to 16 guests at a time. Surrounded by rows of flower beds and hedges on all sides, this piece of property is remarkable in its simplicity, nary a hump, bump or slope stealing from its smooth surface.

Wedged into the far corner of that enclosure at precisely 6:21 p.m. local time Sunday stood Ernie Els, anxiously chipping golf balls toward caddie Ricci Roberts. Tied for the lead, he appeared less to be preparing for a playoff and more killing time, fending off nervous energy, armed with the knowledge that his fate rested in someone else’s hands.

Some tournaments offer enduring images of the winner. This one left a lasting audible resonance. As the man nicknamed the Big Easy looked up from what would be the last of those chip shots, a discernible groan permeated the air from the nearby 18th grandstand. One spectator bellowed, “Yes, Ernie!” and chaos ensued, gladhanders, cameramen and tournament officials rushing to greet one of the game’s most popular figures.

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This is how, for one singular moment, an otherwise ordinary plot of land developed critical significance in one of the best stories we’ve witnessed in years.

This is where Ernie Els won the Open Championship.

Just 30 yards away, past the rows of flower beds and hedges, behind the famous clubhouse, Adam Scott had certified Els’ name on the claret jug for a second time. The leader by four strokes entering the final round and leader by that same margin at one point on the back nine, he summarily dismissed himself from contention with four consecutive closing bogeys.

The one on 15 seemed just a speedbump on the road to victory, Scott still retaining a three-stroke cushion. The three-putt blunder on 16 was where the nerves became a factor. And the critical misstep on 17 confirmed a deadlock atop the leaderboard while he played the final hole.

It was when the 32-year-old from Australia bogeyed the final hole, missing a 10-foot putt that failed to find the left edge of the cup, that Els was declared the winner, the message emanating lustily from over the hedges.

Physically, Els may have won the championship while chipping balls on that square practice green, but theoretically he triumphed at so many other checkpoints along the journey.

He won because of what occurred at the 18th green just minutes before Scott’s bogey, sinking a 15-foot birdie putt that dropped into the dead center of the hole.

He won because of the entire back nine, posting a Sunday-best 4-under 32 when all other contenders were swerving into trouble. He won when Graeme McDowell hit what he called a “15-handicapper shot” on 11, a topped duck-hook that was never found; when Brandt Snedeker posted back-to-back double bogeys on 7 and 8; when Tiger Woods was forced to sit down to hit a buried bunker shot on 6, leading to triple bogey.

He won because of what he said after his third round, too. So often a picture of pessimism during end-of-day self-analysis, Els punctuated a 2-under 68 on Saturday with recollections of Ben Crenshaw on the eve of captaining the United States team to a come-from-behind victory at the 1999 Ryder Cup.

“For some reason I've got some belief this week,” he explained, six strokes back at the time. “I feel something special can happen. I've put in a lot of work the last couple of years, especially the last couple of months. So something good is bound to happen.”

Els won because of experience. He won because of previous triumph – and even more heartache.

He won because he wasn’t given a special invitation to the Masters in April, his first time missing that tournament since 1993, helping add to an already steely resolve. He won because of that tournament eight years earlier, when in a scenario very similar to Sunday at Royal Lytham, Els stood on a practice green awaiting his fate, only to hear the roars echoing through the pines when Phil Mickelson clinched his first major title.

He won because he didn’t win tournaments in Tampa and New Orleans earlier this season, coming excruciatingly close, but fueling his desire to regain entry to the winner’s circle. He won because he did win three previous majors, enabling him with the confidence and wherewithal necessary to keep his composure in future situations.

All of those – the putt on 18, the back-nine flourish, the Saturday night optimism, the triumphs and the heartache – were vitally important pieces in getting Els to that square practice green near the clubhouse, idly chipping balls while again awaiting his fate in a major championship.

“The R&A asked me what I wanted to do,” he later said. “Did I want to watch or what? I said, ‘No, I'll go to the putting green like I've done so many times.’ And I just thought, I'll probably be disappointed again because so many times [I’m] waiting on a playoff.”

Not this time. As the groans traveled over those hedges and past the flower beds, Ernie Els realized his fate. Where he found out will always live as part of Open Championship lore, but the journey in getting to that location is what made him a major champion once again.

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USC's Gaston leaves to become head coach at A&M

By Ryan LavnerJune 19, 2018, 11:00 pm

In a major shakeup in the women’s college golf world, USC coach Andrea Gaston has accepted an offer to become the new head coach at Texas A&M.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Gaston, who informed her players of her decision Monday night, has been one of the most successful coaches over the past two decades, leading the Trojans to three NCAA titles and producing five NCAA individual champions during her 22-year reign. They have finished in the top 5 at nationals in an NCAA-record 13 consecutive seasons.

This year was arguably Gaston’s most impressive coaching job. She returned last fall after undergoing treatment for uterine cancer, but a promising season was seemingly derailed after losing two stars to the pro ranks at the halfway point. Instead, she guided a team with four freshmen and a sophomore to the third seed in stroke play and a NCAA semifinals appearance. Of the four years that match play has been used in the women’s game, USC has advanced to the semifinals three times.  

Texas A&M could use a coach with Gaston’s track record.

Last month the Aggies fired coach Trelle McCombs after 11 seasons following a third consecutive NCAA regional exit. A&M had won conference titles as recently as 2010 (Big 10) and 2015 (SEC), but this year the team finished 13th at SECs.

The head-coaching job at Southern Cal is one of the most sought-after in the country and will have no shortage of outside interest. If the Trojans look to promote internally, men’s assistant Justin Silverstein spent four years under Gaston and helped the team win the 2013 NCAA title.  

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Spieth 'blacked out' after Travelers holeout

By Will GrayJune 19, 2018, 9:44 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – It was perhaps the most-replayed shot (and celebration) of the year.

Jordan Spieth’s bunker holeout to win the Travelers Championship last year in a playoff over Daniel Berger nearly broke the Internet, as fans relived that raucous chest bump between Spieth and caddie Michael Greller after Spieth threw his wedge and Greller threw his rake.

Back in Connecticut to defend his title, Spieth admitted that he has watched replays of the scene dozens of times – even if, in the heat of the moment, he wasn’t exactly choreographing every move.

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“Just that celebration in general, I blacked out,” Spieth said. “It drops and you just react. For me, I’ve had a few instances where I’ve been able to celebrate or react on a 72nd, 73rd hole, 74th hole, whatever it may be, and it just shows how much it means to us.”

Spieth and Greller’s celebration was so memorable that tournament officials later shipped the rake to Greller as a keepsake. It’s a memory that still draws a smile from the defending champ, whose split-second decision to go for a chest bump over another form of celebration provided an appropriate cap to a high-energy sequence of events.

“There’s been a lot of pretty bad celebrations on the PGA Tour. There’s been a lot of missed high-fives,” Spieth said. “I’ve been part of plenty of them. Pretty hard to miss when I’m going into Michael for a chest bump.”

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Pregnant Lewis playing final events before break

By Randall MellJune 19, 2018, 9:27 pm

Stacy Lewis will be looking to make the most of her last three starts of 2018 in her annual return to her collegiate roots this week.

Lewis, due to give birth to her first child on Nov. 3, will tee it up in Friday’s start to the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship at Pinnacle Country Club in Rogers, Arkansas. She won the NCAA individual women’s national title in 2007 while playing at the University of Arkansas. She is planning to play the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship next week and then the Marathon Classic two weeks after that before taking the rest of the year off to get ready for her baby’s arrival.

Lewis, 33, said she is beginning to feel the effects of being with child.

“Things have definitely gotten harder, I would say, over the last week or so, the heat of the summer and all that,” Lewis said Tuesday. “I'm actually excited. I'm looking forward to the break and being able to decorate the baby's room and do all that kind of stuff and to be a mom - just super excited.”

Lewis says she is managing her energy levels, but she is eager to compete.

“Taking a few more naps and resting a little bit more,” she said. “Other than that, the game's been pretty good.”

Lewis won the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship in 2014, and she was credited with an unofficial title in ’07, while still a senior at Arkansas. That event was reduced to 18 holes because of multiple rain delays. Lewis is a popular alumni still actively involved with the university.

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Just like last year, Spieth in desperate need of a spark

By Will GrayJune 19, 2018, 8:38 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Jordan Spieth has arrived at the Travelers Championship in need of a turnaround. Again.

Spieth’s playoff victory last year over Daniel Berger, complete with a bunker hole-out and raucous celebration, went down as one of the most electrifying moments of 2017. It also propelled Spieth to some more major glory, as he won The Open in his very next start.

So it’s easy to forget the state of Spieth’s game when he first stepped foot on the grounds of TPC River Highlands a year ago. Things were, quite plainly, not going well.

He was struggling on the greens, even going so far as to switch putters at the AT&T Byron Nelson. He then failed to contend at Erin Hills, only netting a T-35 finish thanks to a final-round 69 that came hours before the leaders teed off.

So here we are again, with Spieth in search of a spark after a series of underwhelming performances that included last week’s effort at Shinnecock Hills, where he bogeyed the last two holes of his second round to miss the cut by a shot. Except this time, the climb back to the top may be even steeper than it was a year ago.

“I’m not sure where the state of my game is right now,” Spieth said. “If I strike the ball the way I have been this year, then the results are coming. But the last couple weeks I’ve played Muirfield and then the (U.S.) Open, and I hit the ball really poorly and didn’t give myself that many opportunities to let the putter do the work.”

While many big names play sporadically in the time between the Masters and U.S. Open, Spieth remained as busy as ever thanks to the Tour’s swing through Texas. So even after failing to contend much in the spring outside of a memorable finale in Augusta, and even after struggling for much of his week at TPC Sawgrass, Spieth looked out at his schedule and saw a myriad of possible turning points.

There was the AT&T Byron Nelson, played in his hometown and at a venue on which he was one of only a handful with any experience (T-21). Then a trip across town to Colonial, where he had beaten all but two players in a three-year stretch (T-32).

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Throw in the missed cuts at Muirfield Village and Shinnecock Hills, and Spieth has made it to the last leg of a six-event stretch that has included only one off week and, to date, zero chances to contend come Sunday.

“I think here this week, the key for me is just to get out in the first round and try not to do too much,” Spieth said. “I mean, 90-plus percent of the tournaments the last two years I’ve thrown out my chances to win a golf tournament on Thursday. I’ve had too much to do from here on.”

That was certainly the case last week on Long Island, where Spieth’s hopes for a fourth major title evaporated well before course conditions became a focal point over the weekend. He was 4 over through his first two holes and spent much of the next 34 stuck in a fit of frustration. He gave himself a glimmer of hope with four late birdies Friday followed by a pair of bogeys that snuffed it out with equal speed.

Spieth has continued to preach patience throughout the year, but there’s no getting around some eye-popping stats; he's 188th on Tour this year in strokes gained: putting and 93rd in fairways hit. It can foster a pressure to find a cure-all in any given week, especially given how quickly he got a middling summer back on track last year.

“It’s something that you fight, sure,” Spieth said. “It’s been that way just about every tournament except Muirfield, because then you go to the U.S. Open and think you don’t even have to shoot under par to win this golf tournament. So as much as that kind of comes into your head, it’s not bothering me this time. I’m going to try and have fun, and make progress.”

After this week, Spieth will have some down time with family before making the trip overseas to Carnoustie. He plans to have a few private dinners accompanied by the claret jug, one last toast to last year’s success before turning the trophy back over to the R&A.

But even Spieth admitted that as it pertains to his chances to follow in Brooks Koepka’s footsteps by successfully defending a major title, he’ll be greatly aided by working his way into the mix this weekend. It represents the last chance in this early-summer swing to get his name back on the leaderboard, an opportunity to light fire to a pedestrian campaign like he did a year ago.

No pressure.

“It’s your basic stuff that sometimes gets off, that the harder you try to get them back on sometimes, the worse it gets,” Spieth said. “It can be frustrating, or you can just kind of wait for it to come to you. I think I’m OK with where things are, whether it’s the rest of this year or next year. I feel like there are good scores coming.”