Drama, distress among top players entering Open

By John FeinsteinJune 6, 2014, 11:10 am

During the three days leading up to the start of the U.S. Open every year, the most popular man on-site – certainly among those wearing media credentials – is USGA executive director Mike Davis.

A big part of the story at every Open is the golf course and its setup. Since Davis spends several years preparing each Open layout for its close-up, then several weeks making final decisions on setup, everyone wants a few minutes of his pre-Thursday time.

Davis will certainly be in demand next week to talk about re-designed Pinehurst No. 2, but the mad dash for him may not be as intense as it would normally be before the first meaningful tee shot takes flight.

That’s because the 114th U.S. Open presents a unique set of off-course-leading-to-the-golf-course story lines. Heck, the fact that the No.1 player in the world – Adam Scott – is having some Sunday difficulties of late leads to little more than a raised eyebrow.

Consider three names: Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy. With all due respect to Scott and his legion of female fans, these are the three most famous golfers in the world. And right now, the one with the least on his mind is McIlroy – who recently broke off his engagement and ended a three-year relationship with a glamorous tennis star.

In fact, it’s a toss-up as to who has the most tsouris (that’s Yiddish for stress) between the two old pals, Woods and Mickelson. Woods’ golf career could be in jeopardy. Mickelson’s life could be in jeopardy.

Okay, those are absolute worst-case scenarios, but let’s think about all this for a moment.

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Woods had back surgery on March 31. Since then, he has gone into hiding, breaking silence to say on his website that he has no idea when he’ll play again; and taking part at a news conference promoting the tournament he hosts at Congressional Country Club to say that he still has no idea when he’ll play again.

There have been no leaks – which usually come through agent Mark Steinberg to Tiger-friendly media outlets – since then indicating that he’s starting to fully swing a club or that the doctors have cleared him to do anything more than the “gentle” chipping and putting he has talked about.

Some people think Woods will be in England next month for the British Open, which is being played at Royal Liverpool, a golf course he dominated when the Open was last played there in 2006. But Day 1 of that championship is only six weeks away. In the grand scheme of recovery from back surgery that’s not very long. It’s worth noting, too, that the doctor who did the surgery on Woods said that an elite athlete could normally be “back in the field,” in three to four months – but might need longer than that to be as good as he was when 100 percent healthy.

If Woods was a normal human being you would think he would need at least one warm-up event before Liverpool. But Woods isn’t normal. He came back after post-Masters knee surgery in 2008, showed up at the U.S. Open, won – and played an extra 19 playoff holes – and then needed more surgery right after that.

Never count him out. But the smoke signals coming from his camp have, at least until now, not been terribly encouraging.

The world knows even less about what’s going on with Mickelson. Last Thursday, two FBI agents showed up at the Memorial wanting to talk to him. As you might expect, he suggested they speak to his lawyers. No doubt they have or will.

The Wall Street Journal subsequently broke a story saying that Mickelson is being investigated by the SEC – the Securities and Exchange Commission, not the Southestern Conference – and by the FBI for possible insider trading. Specifically, the Journal reported, there were questions about Mickelson’s involvement with billionaire investor Carl Icahn and big-time Las Vegas gambler Billy Walters in a 2011 deal involving Clorox stock.

It’s no surprise that Mickelson says he did nothing wrong. And none of us has any idea what’s involved here. We do know this: According to the Journal story, the investigation started over a year ago. When Mickelson became aware of it is anybody’s guess but since his victory at Muirfield last summer, he has not been a ball of fire on the golf course. Everyone knows the numbers for this season: no wins, no top-10 finishes and a missed cut at the Masters for the first time since 1998.

Very un-Mickelson like.

Perhaps it’s coincidence. Perhaps the psoriatic arthritis is starting to affect his game. Perhaps he’s finally starting to show his age as he approaches his 44th birthday next week.

Or, perhaps he’s got something on his mind. Those who deal with the SEC on a regular basis are unanimous in saying it is a nightmare – regardless of whether you are innocent. The SEC is relentless and doesn’t make anything easy for anyone who is being investigated – for ANYTHING. Perhaps that’s what they have to do in order to get their jobs done. But it is almost impossible to believe that the presence of SEC and FBI investigators in anyone’s life can be terribly pleasant.

All of which makes McIlroy’s emotional announcement of his break-up with Caroline Wozniacki two weeks ago seems like, well, puppy love by comparison. Not that a three-year relationship or a broken engagement should be taken lightly. Certainly McIlroy didn’t do that. But he’s 25 and she’s 22. They will both move on to other relationships and it’s possible that McIlroy now feels he’s brought closure to a phase of his life that needed closure.

Neither Woods nor Mickelson appear likely to find closure with their current predicaments in the near future. Next week, Mickelson has to deal with all the normal questions about finally winning a U.S. Open with the SEC and the FBI lurking over his shoulder. Woods, even when he comes back, will have to show the world that he can be Tiger Woods again.

Daunting tasks in both cases.

Mike Davis won’t be lonely next week but he’ll probably have more free time than usual.

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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.”