Stenson's peaks and valleys before major summit

By John FeinsteinJuly 19, 2016, 12:29 pm

Soon after Tiger Woods had finished off his 1997 masterpiece at Augusta National, winning the Masters by 12 shots, he was asked if there was any possible way he could play better than he had during that memorable April weekend.

Woods smiled and shrugged his shoulders. “Well,” he said, “I did shoot 40 on my first nine holes.”

If someone had asked Henrik Stenson on Sunday evening at Royal Troon if there was any way he could possibly have played better on his way to an historic final-round 63, he might well have said, “Well, I did three-putt twice.”

In a sense, those two three-putts are what make Stenson’s victory in the 145th Open so amazing. Phil Mickelson, the man he beat in one of golf’s great duels, played a flawless round: an eagle, four birdies and no bogeys en route to a historic 65. If not for Stenson, they’d have written songs and made documentaries in future years about Mickelson’s performance at Troon.

They’ll still make the documentaries, but Mickelson will have to settle for the award as best supporting actor. This was Stenson’s star turn and it was both a long time coming and more than well deserved.

The irony is that Stenson’s nickname, the Ice Man, doesn’t fit him at all. Oh sure, he rarely shows emotion on the golf course and his eyes, the proverbial windows to the soul, are often hidden behind sunglasses.

It’s amazing what sunglasses can do to a player’s image: David Duval was always thought of as cold and reserved in large part because he almost always wore sunglasses when, in truth, he’s both warm and funny. And smart. Stenson is all those things. He also has a temper, which has on occasion, caused golf clubs to come to sudden, violent ends.

He’s also resilient. Three years ago, after an epic post-round locker room meltdown in Chicago, he came back a week later to win the Tour Championship in Atlanta.

Of course, playing poorly in Chicago was a tiny blip compared to other events in his life.     

The ups and downs in his career, on and off the golf course, are well documented. The plunge he took after a swing-change not long after his first victory in Europe; the even-deeper dive he took shortly after he had won the 2009 Players Championship – a drop that took him from a ranking of No. 4 to No. 230 in the world.

That slump – slump being a vast understatement – was caused by two potentially life-altering events: the loss of about $8 million in the Stanford Investments Ponzi scheme in 2009 and the loss of about 25 pounds of muscle after a bout with viral pneumonia brought on by coming into contact with a water-born parasite while on vacation in the Maldives.

Either disaster – financial or health – would have ended many careers. Stenson came back from both. If he’s justifiably bitter about having so much money stolen, he rarely shows it. “I was one of the lucky ones,” he said. “I had the chance to recover from what happened. A lot of people didn’t have that chance.”

He recovered emphatically in 2013 when, after finishing second to Mickelson at Muirfield, he won both the FedEx Cup and the Race to Dubai. In all, he won close to $18 million in his last 11 tournaments that year.

But if the hole in his bank account was comfortably filled by his play three years ago, the hole in his resume – the lack of a major title – remained. Unlike a lot of players who play the, “you know I’ll be very happy with my career if I don’t win one,” game, Stenson took the opposite tack.

“It would be silly for me to pretend it doesn’t matter,” he said, sitting in a Charlotte restaurant a couple months ago. “I can count. I just turned 40. I only have so many more chances left. I think I’m playing well enough to get into contention and, if I do that, I hope I can close the deal.

“I thought I had a real shot at it at Muirfield three years ago, but Phil just played too well that day.”

Which is why, as much as he likes and respects Mickelson, Sunday at Troon had to be about as sweet as it gets. Which is also why, disappointing as it was for Mickelson to lose, he could understand why the victory meant so much to Stenson.

“He deserved it,” Mickelson said. “He’s a really good guy and a great champion.”

There are all sorts of numbers that put into perspective the show the two men put on with the world watching.

The 11-shot margin between Mickelson and J.B. Holmes – which topped the 10-shot margin between Jack Nicklaus and third-place finisher Hubert Green at the end of the ‘Duel in the Sun’ at Turnberry in 1977. The 14-shot margin between Holmes and Stenson was three shots clear of Tom Watson’s margin over Green.

There was more: in golf’s greatest crucible – a Sunday in contention at a major – Stenson beat everyone in the field not named Mickelson by four shots. Rory McIlroy had the only 67. Thirteen players broke 70 among the 81 who teed it up Sunday and seven of them shot 69. Stenson and Mickelson went way low on a golf course that was a long way, literally and figuratively, from the desert courses of the Coachella Valley.

There will, no doubt, be much gnashing of teeth among golf fans about Mickelson’s loss. It isn’t a coincidence that the player he is most often compared with is Arnold Palmer, both in playing style and fan appreciation. Mickelson has spent years courting the public and has been re-paid for that with status as one of the most beloved players of all time.

For years, he practically blew off The Open, feeling he just didn’t have the game to win on links courses. Plus, he didn’t enjoy making the overseas trip. He would frequently fly on Monday night, practice on Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday, then tee it up Thursday.

“I’m just not that comfortable over here,” he said, standing on the putting green at Troon in 1997. “It takes me time to adjust to the time, to the weather, to the roundabouts, to the food and to the showers. Not to mention the golf courses.”

The next day, Mickelson shot 76 before bouncing back to finish T-24. Seven years later, on the same golf course, he finished third, one shot out of the Todd Hamilton-Ernie Els playoff. That close call changed his attitude. He began coming over early, playing in the Scottish Open to get used to all the differences and to embrace them. Nine years later, he won both the Scottish and The Open, his Sunday 66 at Muirfield perhaps his best round of major championship golf ever.

Now, he’s an adopted Scot, beloved there as almost everywhere else. He is the unquestioned leader of the American Ryder Cup team, the group’s “papa bear,” as Zach Johnson calls him.

But inside the locker rooms of both the PGA and European Tours, there’s probably no one better liked than Stenson. He’s famous for his pranks and his one-liners. In 2014, after his spectacular 2013, Golf Digest’s Franz Lidz asked if what he’d accomplished had changed his life much.

“Mostly it’s changed the amount of media attention I get,” Stenson said, deadpan. “Before, I rarely had more than five people come in when I was in the interview room. Now it can be as many as seven.”

Those days are now long gone. Stenson will get plenty of attention from the media in the future. More important, his legacy now has the exclamation point he wanted, and deserved, for so many years.

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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.

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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.”