Kaymer's romp has him in line for golf's throne

By Joe PosnanskiJune 16, 2014, 5:29 pm

PINEHURST, N.C. – There is always a No. 1-ranked player in the world. That’s how math works. Someone has to compile the most points. Someone has to be at the top of the list. 

But there is a huge difference between being No. 1, which comes down to a formula, and the being the best, which comes down to a feeling. There have been six different No. 1 players since Tiger Woods’ game began to teeter a bit.

But there has not been a best golfer in the world since that time.

And that might be about to change.

In the last 20 months, Martin Kaymer made the putt that kept the Ryder Cup in Europe. He won the The Players Championship. And this weekend he put on a display of golf at Pinehurst No. 2 that left his peers awestruck. It wasn’t just that he won the U.S. Open by eight shots. It wasn’t just that he finished at 9 under par during a week when only two other players barely bettered par.

No, it was that the world’s best players weren’t even sure what game he was playing.

“I’m wondering how he did it,” said Rory McIlroy, once the No. 1-ranked player on earth.

“He kind of killed the event in the first two days,” said Henrik Stenson, the No. 2-ranked player in the world now.

“Tiger Woods 2000 is here,” Bo Van Pelt said. “He looks just like Martin Kaymer this week.”

Kaymer was Tiger dominant – a 65 in brutal conditions on Thursday; a 65 on Friday with the pressure of being the leader; a spellbinding 72 on Saturday when the USGA tried to melt him down with landmine pin placements; a decisive 69 on Sunday with everyone watching for the first fissure. This was a performance akin to Woods at Pebble Beach or St. Andrews in 2000, Nicklaus at the 1965 Masters, Ray Floyd in Augusta in 1976, Rory at Congressional in 2011 and Louis Oosthuizen at St. Andrews in 2010.

And it came from a man who might have what it takes to not only regain the No. 1 spot in the rankings, but to do what’s more difficult – to become what you might call the heavyweight golfing champion of the world. That was a title that used to matter, too – heavyweight champion of the world – before boxing fractured and ruptured and every other Kiwanis Club began giving out their own title belts.

There is no official heavyweight golfing champion. It comes down to how people – fans, players, media, betting parlors, Fortune 500 companies – see you. To become heavyweight champ, it’s not enough to collect enough points and pick up a bunch of top-10 finishes. In the last few years, Lee Westwood, Luke Donald, McIlroy, Adam Scott and Kaymer have been ranked No. 1 in the world. But did anyone really see any of them as the world’s best player? Scott is a wonderful player, but he has one major championship and five PGA Tour wins in the last four years, and that’s just not going to get it done. Westwood and Donald have never won a major; you can’t be the heavyweight champion of golf without one.

McIlroy has those two majors, but you never know what you’re going to get with him. After going into 2013 as the No. 1-ranked player he was a non-factor at Augusta, worse at the U.S. Open, and he missed the cut at the British Open. He has spoken honestly about how he just wasn’t ready for the moment.

So, you ask: Who has been the heavyweight champion of golf the last five or six years? And my answer is this: Nobody. Even Woods, who won a bunch of non-majors last year, could not take back his title, because he has not won a major in six years. The crown has been abdicated until such time when someone can pull the sword from the stone and become king. It was this way, too, in the mid-to-late 1990s when a bunch of golfers like Nick Faldo, Nick Price, Ernie Els and Fred Couples briefly reigned. It took the Alexander the Great awesomeness of Woods to consolidate power and take control of the game.

Is Kaymer good enough to do that, to become the clear-cut best golfer in the world? Maybe. There are a few things that make Kaymer intriguing. For one: He has already faced some demons. Kaymer skyrocketed to the No. 1 ranking after he won the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in 2010. Kaymer was 26 years old when he climbed to No. 1 and nobody outside of golf’s inner circle had even heard of him. He was an example of a player who was ranked No. 1, but not the greatest.

Kaymer wanted the latter. He decided to learn how to hit a draw, so that he could win at Augusta. Kaymer’s natural shot shape is a cut – a gentle fade from left to right. But Augusta mostly requires a draw – a shot that moves right to left. It was a fascinating decision for Kaymer, to basically try to change his golf swing just as he got to No. 1. He could have kept the old swing, won many millions, enjoyed life. But that wasn’t enough for his ambition. This was reminiscent of what Woods did after winning the ’97 Masters by a record score. It was reminiscent of what Tom Watson did after he won his first major championship, the 1975 British Open. I have asked Watson many times what would motivate a man who just won his first major to tear up his golf swing.

“I wanted to be the best golfer in the world,” he says every time. “And I did not have a swing good enough to do that.”

“I’ve answered that question so many times, honestly, I get tired of it,” Kaymer said when asked the same question Sunday. “I’m sorry. But I just want to become a complete player, that’s it.”

He does not want to revisit that anymore, and you can’t blame him. Kaymer’s effort to hit a draw turned disastrous. His entire swing fell apart. This was happening just as he was getting worldwide attention for the first time – and massive attention in Germany. In 2012, he missed cuts at the British Open and the PGA Championship and was lost. He had his Ryder Cup heroics late that year, but the slump did not stop at Medinah. He dropped out of the top 50 in the rankings. He readily admits he began to despise golf. Even at that Ryder Cup, when he ended up hero, European captain Jose Maria Olazabal seemed to be protecting him – or hiding him – before Sunday singles.

Kaymer admits he began to despise the game.

Let’s be blunt about this: This is usually a one-way trip into golf oblivion. Most great players don’t find their way back. David Duval didn’t. Ian Baker-Finch didn’t. But Kaymer was unwilling to give in. He tried relentlessly to find his old swing and, in the process, he found something even better: his old joy for golf.

I loved what he had to say Saturday when asked about how he felt on the 18th tee with a big lead at the U.S. Open.

“I watched ‘Bagger Vance’ yesterday,” he said of that ethereal golf movie that tries to make the game Zen-like. “And he said, ‘At the end of the day we’re playing a game.’ And that is what we’re doing. We can’t control a lot of things that happen on the golf course. You have to play the game.

“I like to be in control of things. It’s the way I think a lot of Germans are. But at the end of the day, you have to feel on the golf course. You have to create that feel and trust your skill and all the work. And today when I was standing on 18, that’s a tough tee shot. There’s pretty much no fairway. It’s very difficult to see any fairway from the back tee.

“So you stand there and, for me, it was such an enjoyable shot because I knew exactly where I wanted to aim. And I thought, ‘What a great position this is now.”

That’s some pretty deep stuff from Kaymer – to be able to have such positive thoughts in the middle of the golf tournament is positively Nicklaus-like.

Professional golf is a better game with a dominant player. He gives everyone someone to target. He gives the fans someone to root for or against. He gives tournaments shape and rhythm and a certain order. Was anyone really surprised that Scott, the world’s current No. 1-ranked player, did not contend at the U.S. Open and didn’t really contend at the Masters, either? No. He actually finished ninth at the Open, 14th at the Masters – that’s good, right?

It is good. Scott has now finished top 15 in four consecutive majors. That’s the sort of consistency that makes a player No. 1. But it doesn’t make him the king.

Kaymer is the man who would be king, now. After the PGA Championship, after the Ryder Cup, after The Players Championship and after that virtuoso performance at Pinehurst, he’s the one guy who seems to have the game, the determination and the mental strength to become  the heavyweight champion of golf – the first true titleholder since Woods. The rankings put him at No. 11. But the eyes and heart put him much higher.

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Lopez fires flawless 63 for lead in Arkansas

By Associated PressJune 23, 2018, 12:41 am

ROGERS, Ark. – Former Arkansas star Gaby Lopez shot a career-low 8-under 63 on Friday to take the first-round lead in the NW Arkansas Championship.

Lopez, a three-time All-American for the Razorbacks, matched her career best by finishing at 8 under - doing so after missing the cut in her last two tournaments. The Mexican player began the tournament at Pinnacle Country Club ranked 136th in the world but finished just two shots off the course record of 10 under in her third year on the LPGA Tour.

Moriya Jutanugarn was a stroke back along with Minjee Lee, Catriona Matthew, Nasa Hataoka, Lizette Salas, Mirim Lee and Aditi Ashok.

Local favorite Stacy Lewis, expecting her first child in early November, had a 66.

Defending champion So Yeon Ryu, coming off a victory Sunday in Michigan, shot a 67.

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Harman rides hot putter to Travelers lead

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 12:28 am

CROMWELL, Conn. – There are plenty of big names gathered for the Travelers Championship, and through two rounds they’re all chasing Brian Harman.

Harman opened with a 6-under 64, then carded a 66 during Friday’s morning wave to become the only player to finish the first two rounds in double digits under par. The southpaw is currently riding a hot putter, leading the field in strokes gained: putting while rolling in 12 birdies and an eagle through his first 36 holes.

“Putted great today,” said Harman, who ranks 22nd on Tour this season in putting. “Got out of position a couple of times, but I was able to get myself good looks at it. I started hitting the ball really well coming down the stretch and made a few birdies.”

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Harman, 31, has won twice on the PGA Tour, most recently at last year’s Wells Fargo Championship. While he doesn’t have a win this year, he started his season in the fall by reeling off five straight finishes of T-8 or better to quickly install himself as one of the leaders in the season-long points race.

Now topping a leaderboard that includes the likes of Jason Day, Bubba Watson and Rory McIlroy, he realizes that he’ll have his work cut out for him if he’s going to leave Connecticut with trophy No. 3.

“The putter has been really good so far, but I’ve been in position a lot. I’ve had a lot of good looks at it,” Harman said. “I’m just able to put a little pressure on the course right now, which is nice.”

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10-second rule costs Zach Johnson a stroke

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 12:06 am

CROMWELL, Conn. – Zach Johnson heads into the weekend one shot back at the Travelers Championship, but he was a matter of seconds away from being tied for the lead.

Johnson had an 18-foot birdie putt on No. 3 at TPC River Highlands, his 12th hole of the day, but left the ball hanging on the lip. As Johnson walked up to tap the ball in, it oscillated on the edge and eventually fell in without being hit.

Was it a birdie, or a par?

According to the Rules of Golf, and much to Johnson’s chagrin, the answer was a par. Players are afforded “reasonable” time to walk to the hole, and after that they are allowed to wait for 10 seconds to see if the ball drops of its own accord. After that, it either becomes holed by a player’s stroke, or falls in and leads to a one-shot penalty, resulting in the same score as if the player had hit it.

According to Mark Russell, PGA Tour vice president of rules and competitions, Johnson’s wait time until the ball fell in was between 16 and 18 seconds.

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“Once he putts the ball, he’s got a reasonable amount of time to reach the hole,” Russell said. “Then once he reaches the hole, he’s got 10 seconds. After 10 seconds, the ball is deemed to be at rest.”

Johnson tried to emphasize the fact that the ball was oscillating as he stood over it, and even asked rules officials if marking his ball on the edge of the hole would have yielded a “bonus 10 seconds.” But after signing for a 2-under 68 that brought him within a shot of leader Brian Harman, the veteran took the ruling in stride.

“The 10-second rule has always been there. Vague to some degree,” Johnson said. “The bottom line is I went to tap it in after 10 seconds and the ball was moving. At that point, even if the ball is moving, it’s deemed to be at rest because it’s on the lip. Don’t ask me why, but that’s just the way it is.”

While Johnson brushed off any thoughts of the golf gods conspiring against him on the lip, he was beaming with pride about an unconventional par he made on No. 17 en route to a bogey-free round. Johnson sailed his tee shot well right into the water, but after consulting his options he decided to drop on the far side of the hazard near the 16th tee box.

His subsequent approach from 234 yards rolled to within 8 feet, and he calmly drained the putt for an unexpected save.

“I got a great lie. Just opened up a 4-hybrid, and it started over the grandstands and drew in there,” Johnson said. “That’s as good of an up-and-down as I’ve witnessed, or performed.”

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Travelers becoming marquee event for star players

By Will GrayJune 22, 2018, 11:29 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Get lost in the throngs following the defending champ, or caught up amongst the crowds chasing the back-to-back U.S. Open winner, and it’s easy to forget where this tournament was a little more than a decade ago.

The Travelers Championship was without a sponsor, without a worthwhile field, without a consistent date and on the verge of being jettisoned to the PGA Tour Champions schedule. The glory days of the old Greater Hartford Open had come and gone, and the PGA Tour’s ever-increasing machine appeared poised to leave little old Cromwell in its wake.

The civic pride is booming in this neck of the woods. Main Street is lined with one small business after the next, and this time of year there are signs and posters popping up on every corner congratulating a member of the most recent graduating class at Cromwell High School, which sits less than two miles from the first tee at TPC River Highlands.

Having made it through a harrowing time in the event’s history, the local residents now have plenty of reason to take pride.

The Tour’s best have found this little New England hamlet, where tournament officials roll out the red carpet in every direction. They embrace the opportunity to decompress after the mind-numbing gauntlet the USGA set out for them last week, and they relish a return to a course where well-struck shots, more often than not, lead to birdies.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

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Ten years ago, this tournament was also held the week after the U.S. Open. Stewart Cink won, and for his efforts he received a paltry 36 world ranking points. But thanks to a recent influx of star-power, this week’s winner will pocket 58 points – the same amount Rory McIlroy won at Bay Hill, and two more than Justin Rose got at Colonial. Now at the halfway point, the leaderboard backs up the hefty allocation.

While Brian Harman leads at 10 under, the chase pack is strong enough to strike fear in the heart of even the most seasoned veteran: McIlroy, Bubba Watson and Zach Johnson, they of the combined eight major titles, all sit within three shots of the lead. Former world No. 1 Jason Day is one shot further back, and reigning Player of the Year Justin Thomas will start the third round inside the top 20.

Paul Casey and Bryson DeChambeau, both likely participants at the Ryder Cup this fall, are right there as well at 8 under. Casey lost a playoff here to Watson in 2015 and has come back every year since, witnessing first-hand the tournament’s growth in scope.

“It speaks volumes for what Travelers have done and how they treat everybody, and the work that Andy Bessette and his team put in to fly around the country and speak highly of this event,” Casey said. “And do things which matter, to continue to improve the event, not just for players but for spectators.”

Part of the increased field strength can be attributed to the Tour’s recent rule change, requiring players who play fewer than 25 events in a season to add a new event they haven’t played in the last four years. Another portion can be attributed to the short commute from Shinnecock Hills to TPC River Highlands, a three-hour drive and even shorter across the Long Island Sound – an added bonus the event will lose two of the next three years with West Coast U.S. Opens.

But there’s no denying the widespread appeal of an event named the Tour’s tournament of the year, players’ choice and most fan-friendly in 2017. While Spieth’s return to defend his title was assumed, both Day and McIlroy are back for another crack this year after liking what they saw.

“Anyone that I talked to could only say good things about the tournament about the golf course, how the guys are treated here, how the fans come out, and how the community always gets behind this event,” McIlroy said. “Obviously I witnessed that for the first time last year, and I really enjoyed it.”

After starting the week with all four reigning major champs and five of the top 10 players in the latest world rankings, only Masters champ Patrick Reed got sent packing following rounds of 72-67. The remaining top-flight contingent will all hit the ground running in search of more low scores Saturday, with Spieth (-4) still retaining a glimmer of hope to keep his title defense chances alive, perhaps with a 63 like he fired in the opening round.

The Tour’s schedule represents a zero-sum game. Outside of the majors and WGCs that essentially become must-play events for the game’s best, the rest of the legs of the weekly circus become victim of a 12-month version of tug-of-war. Some players like to play in the spring; others load up in the fall. Many play the week before majors, while a select group block off the week after for some R&R far away from a golf course.

But in an environment where one tournament’s ebbs can create flows for another, the Travelers has continued a steady climb up the Tour’s hierarchy. Once in jeopardy of relegation, it has found its footing and appears in the process of turning several of the Tour’s one-name stars into regular participants.

Rory. Jordan. Bubba. JT.

It’s been a long battle for tournament officials, but the proof is in the pudding. And this weekend, the reward for the people of Cromwell – population 14,000 – looks to be a star-studded show.

“All the events are incredible,” Thomas said. “But this is kind of one of those underrated ones that I think until people come and play, do they realize how great it is.”