Koepka further proof young stars have taken over

By Jason SobelFebruary 2, 2015, 12:48 am

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Don’t believe the headlines. Don’t give in to clichéd opinion. Don’t buy all the hype about this week’s PGA Tour event representing some sort of “changing of the guard” or “young gun uprising” or “end of an era” or “the future of golf.”

What happened at the Waste Management Phoenix Open – where a 24-year-old prevailed over a 22-year-old, with a 21-year-old and a 20-year-old in hot pursuit after two other 21-year-olds had stolen the spotlight during first two days, which also featured a 44-year-old superstar and 39-year-old mega-superstar looking stiff and tired and fragile in a few different ways – isn’t the future.

On a weekend when 25-year-old Rory McIlroy reaffirmed that he’s far and away the world’s best golfer with a seemingly easy win in Dubai, and 17-year-old Lydia Ko reached No. 1 in the women’s rankings, Brooks Koepka’s victory doesn’t symbolize a new world in the game and it isn’t emblematic of any seismic shift.

No, this is the present. This is golf. Deal with it – or get left behind like so many seasoned PGA Tour veterans have lately.

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“Just playing against each other for years and years, since about 14,” explained Koepka about their collective knack for appearing so comfortable. “We have played against these guys for years and years, and it's fun. We enjoy it and they are all really good players.”

If the last three weeks had been the PGA Tour's soft launch to this calendar year, this tournament was to be its grand opening, a celebrated ribbon-cutting that represented hope-springs-eternal optimism at the game's biggest keg party.

Tiger Woods was returning to TPC Scottsdale for the first time in 14 years; favorite son and three-time champion Phil Mickelson was here, too. Before the weekend, though, each had been relegated to slamming his trunk after a missed cut.

And yet, the optimism didn't subside. It just shifted.

The old stalwarts were replaced by young upstarts all over the leaderboard. For two rounds, rookies Justin Thomas and Daniel Berger lingered atop the leaderboard. They gave way to more experienced youngsters. Jordan Spieth notched a share of seventh place. Hideki Matsuyama was in it until the final hole. Even an Arizona State amateur named Jon Rahm impressively navigated himself to a T-5 result.

Then there was Koepka, who used brute strength to overpower TPC Scottsdale, including a 331-yard drive that split the fairway on the final hole.

So much for nerves. So much for inexperience. So much for toiling amongst the rank-and-file, learning the ropes before contending and, finally, winning.

There’s no statistic to measure this, but this generation’s young stars are more fearless than ever before. Koepka appeared as comfortable in the final group as fellow 24-year-old Patrick Reed was inspired during his fourth career win just three weeks ago.

The amount of young players with serious game is so significant that even one of the game’s so-called “up-and-comers” already sees himself in a different light.

“I don't know if [I’m] considered to be a vet yet or if I'm still young,” Rickie Fowler, 26, philosophized earlier in the week. “I guess I'm kind of in the middle. Yeah, last year and this year I have had a couple groups where I have been the oldest player. Maybe that's veteran territory. I don't know.”

It’s not just that this next generation of players is talented. It’s that they’ve changed their goals. They’re reaching higher. It’s not enough for them to treat the first few years of PGA Tour life as graduate school. They want to skip right to the real world and take over the corner office.

It wasn’t so long ago that players in Koepka’s situation – he was technically a rookie last season, while playing most of his golf on the European Tour – would speak of keeping their cards as a major goal. Now those objectives have been elevated.

“Winning on the PGA Tour was the one thing that I wanted to accomplish,” he said afterward. “I wanted to come out this year, get a win, make Presidents Cup and further down the road make the Ryder Cup. … That's the goal. I don't see why I can't. I feel like my game is ready for that. I was ready to compete for majors and win them.”

It’s one thing to aim high. It’s another to reach those goals.

Koepka certainly appears to be on the right track so far, with his first PGA Tour title now matching his one from the European circuit just three months ago. He’s not alone, either.

This isn’t the future of golf. It’s already the present. Get used to it.

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Minjee Lee co-leads Walmart NW Arkansas Championship

By Associated PressJune 24, 2018, 12:25 am

ROGERS, Ark. - Minjee Lee wasn't all that concerned when she missed her first cut of the year this month at the ShopRite LPGA Classic.

The ninth-ranked Australian has certainly looked at ease and back in form at Pinnacle Country Club in her first event since then.

Lee and Japan's Nasa Hataoka each shot 6-under 65 on Saturday to share the second-round lead in the NW Arkansas Championship 13-under 129. Lee is chasing her fifth victory since turning pro three years ago. It's also an opportunity to put any lingering frustration over that missed cut two weeks ago behind her for good.

''I didn't particularly hit it bad, even though I missed the cut at ShopRite, I just didn't really hole any putts,'' Lee said. ''I'd been hitting it pretty solid going into that tournament and even into this tournament, too. Just to see a couple putts roll in has been nice.''

The 22-year-old Lee needed only 24 putts during her opening 64 on Friday, helping her to match the low round of her career. Despite needing 28 putts Saturday, she still briefly took the outright lead after reaching as low as 14 under after a birdie on the par-5 seventh.

Full-field scores from the Walmart Arkansas Championship

Lee missed the green on the par-4 ninth soon thereafter to lead to her only bogey of the day and a tie with the 19-year-old Hataoka, who is in pursuit of her first career win.

Hataoka birdied six of eight holes midway through her bogey-free round on Saturday. It was yet another stellar performance from the Japanese teenager, who has finished in the top 10 in four of her last five tournaments and will be a part of Sunday's final pairing.

''I try to make birdies and try to be under par, that's really the key for me to get a top ten,'' Hataoka said. ''Golf is just trying to be in the top 10 every single week, so that's the key.''

Third-ranked Lexi Thompson matched the low round of the day with a 64 to get to 11 under. She hit 17 of 18 fairways and shot a 5-under 30 on her opening nine, The American is in search of her first win since September in the Indy Women in Tech Championship.

Ariya Jutanugarn and Celine Boutier were 10 under.

First-round leader Gaby Lopez followed her opening 63 with a 75 to drop to 4 under. Fellow former Arkansas star Stacy Lewis also was 4 under after a 72.

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Henley will try to put heat on Casey in final round

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 11:55 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While it will be a tall task for anyone to catch Paul Casey at the Travelers Championship, the man who will start the round most within reach of the Englishman is Russell Henley.

Henley was in the penultimate group at TPC River Highlands on Saturday, but he’ll now anchor things during the final round as he looks to overcome a four-shot deficit behind Casey. After a 3-under 67, Henley sits at 12 under through 54 holes and one shot clear of the three players tied for third.

Henley closed his third round with a run of five straight pars, then became the beneficiary of a pair of late bogeys from Brian Harman that left Henley alone in second place.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“Could have made a couple more putts, but to end with two up-and-downs like that was nice,” Henley said. “I felt a little bit weird over the shots coming in, put me in some bad spots. But it was nice to have the short game to back me up.”

Henley has won three times on Tour, most recently at the 2017 Houston Open, and he cracked the top 25 at both the Masters and U.S. Open. But with Casey riding a wave of confidence and coming off an 8-under 62 that marked the best round of the week, he knows he’ll have his work cut out for him in order to nab trophy No. 4.

“I think I can shoot a low number on this course. You’ve got to make the putts,” Henley said. “I’m definitely hitting it well enough, and if I can get a couple putts to fall, that would be good. But I can’t control what he’s doing. I can just try to keep playing solid.”

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Back from back injury, Casey eyeing another win

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 11:36 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Given his four-shot cushion at the Travelers Championship and his recent victory at the Valspar Championship, it’s easy to forget that Paul Casey hit the disabled list in between.

Casey had to withdraw from The Players Championship because of a bad back, becoming the only player in the top 50 in the world rankings to miss the PGA Tour’s flagship event. He flew back to England to get treatment, and Casey admitted that his T-20 finish at last month’s BMW PGA Championship came while he was still on the mend.

“I wasn’t 100 percent fit with the back injury, which was L-4, L-5, S-1 (vertebrae) all out of place,” Casey said. “Big inflammation, nerve pain down the leg and up the back. I didn’t know what was going on.”

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Thanks in large part to a combination of MRIs, back adjustments and anti-inflammatories, Casey finally turned the corner. His T-16 finish at last week’s U.S. Open was the first event for which he felt fully healthy since before the Players, and he’s on the cusp of a second title since March after successfully battling through the injury.

“We thought we were fixing it, but we weren’t. We were kind of hitting the effects rather than the cause,” Casey said. “Eventually we figured out the cause, which was structural.”

Casey started the third round at TPC River Highlands two shots off the lead, but he’s now four clear of Russell Henley after firing an 8-under 62 that marked the low round of the week.

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Bubba thinks he'll need a Sunday 60 to scare Casey

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 11:15 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Perhaps moreso than at most PGA Tour venues, a low score is never really out of reach at TPC River Highlands. Positioned as a welcome change of pace after the U.S. Open, the Travelers Championship offers a lush layout that often pushes the balance much closer to reward than risk.

This is where Jim Furyk shot a 58 on the par-70 layout two years ago – and he didn’t even win that week. So even though Paul Casey enters the final round with a commanding four-shot lead, there’s still plenty of hope for the chase pack that something special could be in store.

Count Bubba Watson among the group who still believe the title is up for grabs – even if it might require a Herculean effort, even by his standards.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Watson has won the Travelers twice, including in a 2015 playoff over Casey. But starting the final round in a large tie for sixth at 10 under, six shots behind Casey, he estimates that he’ll need to flirt with golf’s magic number to give the Englishman something to worry about.

“My 7 under yesterday, I need to do better than that. I’m going to have to get to like 10 [under],” Watson said. “The only beauty is, getting out in front, you have a chance to put a number up and maybe scare them. But to scare them, you’re going to have to shoot 10 under at worst, where I’m at anyway.”

Watson started the third round three shots off the lead, and he made an early move with birdies on Nos. 1 and 2 en route to an outward 32. The southpaw couldn’t sustain that momentum, as bogeys on Nos. 16 and 17 turned a potential 65 into a relatively disappointing 67.

“Bad decision on the par-3, and then a very tough tee shot for me on 17, and it just creeped into the bunker,” Watson said. “Just, that’s golf. You have mistakes every once in a while.”