Riviera presenting a major challenge

By Jason SobelFebruary 21, 2015, 2:31 am

LOS ANGELES – Here’s one dirty little secret of the organizations which hold major championships: They don’t simply bring ‘em to the best courses.

This notion may stretch the idealism of neophyte observers who believe turf and landscape alone are the determining factors, but it shouldn’t. While governing bodies won’t bring a major to an undeserving track, many are quickly crossed off the list for logistical reasons. After all, lush fairways and tricky greens can be created anywhere; only certain venues, though, are spacious enough for luxury corporate suites, gargantuan merchandise tents and overflow parking lots.

All of which leads us to venerable Riviera Country Club, host of three majors but none in the last two decades and none scheduled in the near future. Not that it’s an impossibility. Look, if the USGA can bring a U.S. Open to Merion Golf Club, as it did two years ago, then we shouldn’t write off any course.

But just in case the powers that be don’t see fit to bring a major back to Riviera, for logistical or political or philosophical reasons, that’s fine, too.

The course is just going to go ahead and host its own major this week anyway.

Through two rounds of the Northern Trust Open, conditions are firm enough, scoring is high enough and competitors are muttering to themselves enough to make this look vaguely familiar as one of the big four.

“It's getting that way, yeah,” Retief Goosen agreed. “The rough is thick in places. Yeah, the greens are definitely becoming U.S. Open greens. They are getting firmer and quicker. Some of these holes, if you get away with a par, it's a good score.”

He would know. Though it’s been 11 years since his second of two U.S. Open victories, Goosen has always played his best golf on difficult setups – which also explains his overnight lead entering the weekend.

Northern Trust Open : Articles, videos and photos

But even that news – his first 36-hole lead in a half-decade – underscores the greater theme so far. After scores of 66-70, he finds himself atop the leaderboard at just 6-under.

That’s the highest leading score in relation to par this season by three strokes.

The numbers illustrating Riviera’s difficulty don’t end there, either. The 3-over cut is the highest at a tournament since last year’s Quicken Loan National. And it’s the highest at this course in three years. By comparison, the cut at Pebble Beach last week was 10 strokes better.

“You see the golf course like this and you realize it could definitely have a U.S. Open here,” surmised Ryan Moore, who at 5-under is just a stroke off the lead. “I mean, you just can’t get next to a hole. There were maybe five or six chances today of having something inside 10 feet, unless you get lucky.”

For those players who haven’t walked through the cavernous clubhouse and noted the many forms of memorabilia celebrating those long-ago majors, here’s the annotated history: In 1948, Ben Hogan won the U.S. Open here; in 1983, Hal Sutton won the PGA Championship here; and in 1995, Steve Elkington also won the PGA.

Justin Thomas was only 2 years old during the last leg of that trio, but that doesn’t mean he fails to understand how fierce this course can be.

“I've only played one major but from my experience and from what I've heard from others, this is very U.S. Open‑like,” said Thomas, also a single shot off the pace. “It's very firm and being in the fairway is such a huge premium, and all the spin you can get on it is really important. There are good pins and the greens are small and severe, so you need to be precise with what you're doing with your ball.”

Like at most major championships, the leaderboard entering Saturday’s round might not resemble the one which starts the day on Sunday. With contenders so tightly packed – 25 are within five strokes of the lead – and the course firming up each afternoon, don’t be surprised if a few players post scores early and watch everyone back up later in the day.

For evidence we only have to look back to last year’s edition of this event, when Bubba Watson made the cut on the number, then posted weekend scores of 64-64 to win.

“It’s nice when you can shoot 2 or 3 under and move up the leaderboard,” Moore said. “There’s something kind of nice about that. But at the same time, you know how difficult it is and it’s very easy to shoot 4 or 5 over on this golf course right now and not hit bad golf shots.”

That’s what will be facing players in the final two rounds. There’s a very fine line here at Riviera between success and failure.

But hey, it’s not just unique to this tournament. We can say that about every major.

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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.”