Collective Sighs

By Mercer BaggsAugust 21, 2005, 4:00 pm
For the 105th occasion, the United States Amateur Championship will be contested beginning Monday. That means, in looking to the past, someone will soon be forever linked to golfing legends like Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
 
And, in looking to the near future, it likely means that this same someone will soon struggle meet the lofty expectations that come with winning such a prize.
 
Winning the U.S. Amateur is akin to winning a professional major championship (which is appropriate since it was once considered a major) ' victory is great; but victory does not make one great.
 
In the mid-90s, Woods provided a straight shot of adrenaline to The Am by winning three consecutive titles. He created an enthusiasm for the championship that hadnt been witnessed in over 60 years.
 
Tigers success also created a residual effect. Some of it was quite positive, like the increased interest. For example, NBC picked up the final two days of coverage in 1996, the year in which Tiger completed his triple, and, a decade later, is still scheduled to do so.
 
But a measurement was also established to Tiger Woods.
 
Woods revived the notion that the U.S. Amateur winner must become a great champion, like Jones and Arnold Palmer and Nicklaus. Or, if thats an unfair comparison ' which, of course, it is ' to at least become an above-par professional, like John Cook and Scott Verplank and Billy Mayfair.
 
Instead, the winners in Woods wake have been at best a bit disappointing.
 
Its not that none of the eight Amateur winners post-Tiger has yet to win a major championship. Its not that none of them have won multiple PGA Tour titles.
 
What makes this group disappointing is that collectively theyve accomplished very little since turning professional.
 
Over the years, the U.S. Amateur has produced its share of winners who had little or no professional success; Chris Patton, Eric Meeks and Mitch Voges come to mind. But usually over the course of a 5-8-year period, a few of these guys will go on to have very productive careers.
 
Its way, way too early to label any of these most recent winners a professional failure. But thus far, they are nowhere near where they want to be or where anyone ' including them ' thought theyd be.
 
Matt Kuchar (1997) and David Gossett (1999) are the only Amateur winners over the last eight years who have gone on to win a PGA Tour event.
 
But whats most amazing is that only one of these players currently has full exempt status on tour ' and its not Kuchar or Gossett. That distinction belongs to Hank Kuehne, the 1998 winner.
 
When you win the Amateur, your expectations grow, Kuehne told me a year ago. You feel you can play better and that you should play better. It takes a while to meet those expectations.
 
For each and every one in this group, those expectations are still waiting to be met.
 
Kuchar, who won the 2002 Honda Classic, is the only other player in this bunch who is playing regularly on tour this year, doing so because he finished 139th on last years money list; though, in 15 events he resides outside the top 150 in earnings.
 
Gossett could play on a semi-regular basis due to his 2001 John Deere Classic victory. Instead, hes trying to rediscover his game on the Nationwide Tour, and not having much success. Gossett has played seven tournaments on the secondary circuit and has missed all seven cuts, failing to post a single sub-70 round.
 
Jeff Quinney, the 2000 Amateur winner, and Bubba Dickerson, the 2001 winner, are both playing on the Nationwide Tour. Quinney, who won the 2004 Oregon Classic, tied for third in last week's Xerox Classic, easily his best finish of the season. He's still, however, outside the top 70 on the money list, with the top 20 at season's end earning a promotion.
 
Dickerson tied for 11th this past week in New York. But he's outside the top 40. He is a rookie on tour, and one without exempt status. He has spent the early stages of his professional career bouncing around on the various developmental tours, like the European Challenge Tour and the Hooters Tour.
 
Similarly, 2002 winner Rickey Barnes and Australian Nick Flanagan, the 03 champ, are playing wherever in the world they can, as they have no status in the States.
 
Then theres last years winner, Ryan Moore. Moore, who won every major amateur event in 2004, is still trying to find his professional footing. He has used four of his seven allotted PGA Tour sponsors exemptions since relinquishing his amateur status after the U.S. Open, making two cuts and earning less than $21,000.
 
Hes likely headed to the Qualifying Tournament in order to try and make it to the big leagues next season. Q-School is the most viable ' and for some the only ' option for most of these players to earn their 2006 PGA Tour card.
 
Kuehne is inside the top 80 on the tours money list this year, making him the only member of this group assured of exempt status for next season.
 
Come Sunday evening, there will be a newly crowed United States Amateur champion. This we know, because none of the 312 men in the stroke-play field have ever won this event.
 
And he will do so at historic Merion Golf Club, site of Jones completion of the seasonal Grand Slam in 1930.
 
Winning the U.S. Am is a phenomenal accomplishment ' the ultimate for any amateur. Hopefully, for the eventual champion and his most recent predecessors, its not the pinnacle of thier golfing careers.
 
Email your thoughts to Mercer Baggs
 
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    V-i-n-d-i-c-a-t-i-o-n: Repeat gives Koepka credit he deserves

    By Ryan LavnerJune 18, 2018, 2:08 am

    SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – In an ironic twist Sunday, the last man to win consecutive U.S. Opens was tasked with chronicling Brooks Koepka’s final round at Shinnecock Hills.

    Carrying a microphone for Fox Sports, Curtis Strange kept his composure as the on-course reporter. He didn’t cough in Koepka’s downswing. Didn’t step on his ball in the fescue. Didn’t talk too loudly while Koepka lined up a putt.

    Instead, Strange stood off to the side, clipboard covering his mouth, and watched in awe as Koepka stamped himself as the best U.S. Open player of this next generation.

    And so after Koepka became the first player in 29 years to take consecutive Opens, Strange found himself fourth in the greeting line near the 18th green. He was behind Koepka’s playing competitor, Dustin Johnson. And he was behind Koepka’s father, Bob. And he was behind Koepka’s caddie, Ricky Elliott.

    But there Strange was, standing on a sandy path leading to the clubhouse, ready to formally welcome Koepka into one of the most exclusive clubs in golf.

    “Hell of a job, bud,” Strange barked in his ear, above the din. “Incredible.”

    That Koepka prevailed on two wildly different layouts, and in totally different conditions, was even more satisfying.

    Erin Hills, in Middle of Nowhere, Wis., was unlike any U.S. Open venue in recent memory. The wide-open fairways were lined with thick, deep fescue, but heavy rain early in the week and the absence of any significant wind turned golf’s toughest test into the Greater Milwaukee Open. Koepka bashed his way to a record-tying score (16 under par) and over the past year has never felt fully appreciated, in large part because of the weirdness of the USGA setup.   


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    Koepka doesn’t concern himself with that type of noise, of course, but when he arrived at Shinnecock earlier this week he felt a sense of familiarity. The generous fairways. The punishing venue. The premium on iron play.

    “It’s a similar feel,” Elliott said. “We said it all week.”

    A new, quirky venue like Erin Hills might not have been held in high regard, but the rich history of Shinnecock? It demanded respect.

    “He’s some player,” Strange said, “and I’m proud of him because there was some talk last year of Erin Hills not being the Open that is supposed to be an Open. But he won on a classic, so he’s an Open player.”

    “This one is a lot sweeter,” Koepka said.

    Those around the 28-year-old were shocked that he even had a chance to defend his title.

    Last fall Koepka began feeling discomfort in his left wrist. He finished last in consecutive tournaments around the holidays, then underwent an MRI that showed he had a torn ligament in his left wrist.

    Koepka takes immense pride in having a life outside of golf – he never watches Tour coverage on off-weeks – but he was downright miserable during his indefinite stint on the sidelines. He said it was the lowest point of his career, as he sat in a soft cast up to his elbow, binge-watching TV shows and gaining 15 pounds. The only players he heard from during his hiatus: Johnson, Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson.

    “You just feel like you get forgotten,” Koepka said.

    During the spring, Elliott would occasionally drive from Orlando to Jupiter, Fla., to check on his boss. “He was down in the dumps,” he said. “That sort of injury he had, it didn’t seem like there was going to be an end. There was no timeframe on it, and that was the most frustrating thing.”

    After the Masters, Koepka told Elliott that his wrist was feeling better and that he was going to start hitting balls. Elliott brought his clubs to South Florida, and they played a few holes at The Floridian.

    “He was hitting it right on the button,” Elliott said. “I said, ‘Are you sure you haven’t been practicing?’ He hadn’t missed a beat. I have no idea how he does it. He’s just a tremendously talented guy.”

    In limited action before the Open, Koepka fired a trio of 63s, at TPC Sawgrass and Colonial. He’s never been short on confidence – as a 12-year-old he once told his dad that he was going to drop out of school in four years and turn pro – and he recently woofed to swing coach Claude Harmon III that he was primed to win sometime in May or June.

    “I said to him on the range this morning, ‘You were on your couch in January and February, not really knowing if you were going to be able to play here,’” Harmon said. “I think that’s why it means so much to him. That’s one of the reasons that he kept saying no one was more confident than him, because to get this opportunity to come back and play and have a chance to win back-to-back U.S. Opens, he was going to take advantage of it as best he could.”

    Koepka carded a second-round 66 to put himself in the mix, then survived a hellacious third-round setup to join a four-way tie for the lead, along with Johnson, the world No. 1 and his fellow Bash Brother.

    As much as Johnson is praised for his resilience, Koepka has proven to be equally tough in crunch time, especially in this major. There’s no better stage for Koepka to showcase his immense gifts than the Open, an examination that tests players physically, mentally and even spiritually. But Koepka, like Johnson, never joined the growing chorus of complainers at Shinnecock. The closest he came to criticizing the setup was this: “I think the course is very close.”

    Rather than whine, he said that he relished the challenge of firing away from flags. He accepted bad shots. He tried to eliminate double bogeys. Even after his wrist injury, Koepka showed no hesitation gouging out of the deep fescue, his ferocious clubhead speed allowing him to escape the rough and chase approach shots near the green, where he could rely on his sneaky-good short game.

    “He has the perfect game to play in majors,” Harmon said. “He probably plays more conservatively in majors. We’re always joking that we wish he would play the way he does in majors every week. I just think he knows how important pars and bogeys are. It says a lot about him as a player.”

    Johnson has many of the same physical and mental attributes, and they’ve each benefited from the other’s intense focus and discipline. They both adhere to a strict diet and are frequent workout partners, which even included a gym session on Sunday morning, before their penultimate pairing. They made small talk, chatting about lifting and how many of the Sunday pins were located in the middle of the green, but after they arrived at the course they barely said two words to each other.

    “They’re good friends on and off the course,” Harmon said, “but they definitely want to kick the s--- out of each other.”

    “That’s the way it’s supposed to be,” Strange said. “If they’re best buddies, well, you’re standing between me and the trophy. You don’t care much for him for 4 1/2 hours.”

    There was much at stake Sunday, but none more significant than Koepka’s march on history. Squaring off head-to-head against the game’s best player, Koepka outplayed Johnson from the outset, going 3 under for the first 10 holes to open up a two-shot lead. And unlike at Erin Hills, where he pulled away late with birdies, it was his par (and bogey) saves that kept Koepka afloat on Nos. 11, 12 and 14.  

    In the end, he clipped Fleetwood (who shot a record-tying 63) by one and Johnson by two.

    “You’ve got to give him a lot of credit,” Strange said, shaking his head. “He’s got a lot of guts.”

    As Koepka marched away to sign his card, Strange was asked if it was bittersweet to know that he’s no longer the answer to the trivia question, the last guy to go back-to-back at the Open.

    “Heck no!” he said. “What are they going to do, take one away? I’m a part of a group. And it’s a good group. I hope it means as much to him as it has to me.”

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    This time, Dad gets to enjoy Koepka's Father's Day win

    By Rex HoggardJune 18, 2018, 1:39 am

    SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – When Brooks Koepka won his first U.S. Open last year at Erin Hills the celebration was relatively subdued.

    His family didn’t attend the ’17 championship, but there was no way they were missing this year’s U.S. Open.

    “This year we booked something about five miles away [from Shinnecock Hills]," said Koepka’s father, Bob. "We weren’t going to miss it and I’m so glad we’re here.”

    The family was treated to a show, with Koepka closing with a 68 for a one-stroke victory to become the first player since Curtis Strange in 1989 to win back-to-back U.S. Opens.


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    Koepka called his father early Sunday to wish him a happy Father’s Day, and Bob Koepka said he noticed a similar confidence in his son’s voice to the way he sounded when they spoke on Sunday of last year’s championship.

    There was also one other similarity.

    “Two years in a row, I haven't gotten him anything [for Father’s Day],” Brooks Koepka laughed. “Next year, I'm not going to get him anything either. It might bring some good luck.

    “It's incredible to have my family here, and my dad loves golf. To be here, he loves watching. To share it with him this time, it will be a little bit sweeter.”

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    Sunday drama won't overshadow USGA's issues

    By Randall MellJune 18, 2018, 1:30 am

    SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – It looked like a British Open.

    It was playing like a U.S. Open.

    Through two rounds, Shinnecock Hills was double trouble in the best kind of way.

    It was a hybrid in the most appealing sense of golf course architecture’s ancient allure and its modern defenses.

    Halfway through, the USGA was nailing the setup, with Dustin Johnson the only player under par in one of the toughest but fairest tests in recent U.S. Open memory.

    This looked like it was going to be remembered as USGA CEO Mike Davis’ masterpiece, but even a Sunday to remember couldn’t trump a Saturday to forget.

    Sunday’s drama - with the history Brooks Koepka made becoming the first player in three decades to win back-to-back U.S. Opens, with Tommy Fleetwood’s 63 equaling Johnny Miller’s final round record - could not restore faith being lost in the USGA’s ability to set up and manage this championship.

    This U.S. Open ended with footnotes the size of headlines.

    The issues arising Saturday with the USGA losing control of the course raised even more troubling questions about why this organization’s heavy hand can’t seem to avoid becoming as much a part of the story as the competition.


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    The controversy that was ignited Saturday when Phil Mickelson intentionally incurred a two-shot penalty by making a putting stroke on a moving ball also raised questions about the organization’s ability to fairly administer its own rules.

    It’s a shame, because Davis has some good ideas.

    His reimagined vision of this championship as the “ultimate test” makes sense as a better and more complete event. His ideas are designed to identify the game’s most complete player on America’s best courses better than any other major.

    It’s just not working.

    This year’s failure in the wake of the ’04 debacle at Shinnecock Hills is especially worrisome. Davis vowed it wouldn’t happen again. Somehow, some way, he let it happen again.

    Maybe the old standards we’ve come to judge the U.S. Open upon are too high, impossible to meet with today’s more athletic player, high-tech coaching and space-age drivers, shafts and balls.

    Nobody ever protected par better than the USGA, but maybe par can’t be properly protected anymore, without tricking up a course.

    Because if USGA officials can’t make its exacting formula work at an architectural treasure like Shinnecock Hills, where they had it absolutely perfect for two days, you wonder if they can make it work at all.

    The testament to how the USGA was nailing its formula wasn’t in what we heard the first two days. It was in what we weren’t hearing. Only one player was under par through Friday, but there wasn’t a complaint to be heard in the locker room or on the range.

    They were wiping the smiles off players’ faces without infuriating them.

    In that regard, the USGA was delivering a miracle.

    The wonderful appeal Shinnecock Hills held as a U.S. Open/British Open hybrid at week’s start ended up being twisted into something else by week’s end. It stood as a symbol of the championship’s confusion over its proper identity.

    Even with Sunday’s compelling storylines unfolding, players were still frustrated over setup.

    Saturday was over the edge, with Davis admitting “there were parts of this, simply put, that were too tough.” He said winds were stronger than expected, but the winds weren’t that much different than were forecast.

    So USGA officials softened the course for Sunday, with more overnight watering and more friendly hole locations.

    That turned Shinnecock Hills into Jekyl and Hyde on the weekend.

    Scoring told the story.

    Rickie Fowler shot 84 on Saturday and 65 on Sunday. Fleetwood shot 78 and 63.

    They weren’t alone, even though the weather wasn’t as dramatically different as the scores would indicate.

    This wasn’t about the weather. It was about the course being manipulated in ways that frustrated players.

    “They soaked the hell out of it,” Pat Perez said after tying for 36th. “They’ve got all the pins in the middle.

    “It is supposed to gradually get to where it was Saturday afternoon. You don’t lose it on Saturday and then try to make up for it, soak the course and make it totally different.”

    Brandt Snedeker was equally befuddled playing drastically different conditions in weather that wasn’t so drastically different.

    “The thing that is unfortunate is that the guys that were playing the best golf this week took the brunt of it yesterday, when it should have been vice versa,” Snedeker said. “Some guys got robbed of a really good chance to win a golf tournament yesterday afternoon, which is not fair.”

    There were other issues that continued to challenge faith in the USGA.

    Despite later acknowledging it set up the course too tough in spots on Saturday, the USGA put players on the clock for slow play.

    The Mickelson penalty also raised issues.

    He got a two-shot penalty under Rule 14-5 (playing moving ball) when there was some outcry over whether he should have been penalized under Rule 1-2 (exerting influence), which would have opened the door to disqualification for a serious breach. The USGA rigorously defended 14-5 (playing moving ball) as the proper call.

    John Daly wasn’t disqualified for striking a moving ball in a similar instance at the U.S. Open at Pinehurst in 1999. He also got a two-shot penalty, but there was a difference in the situations that might have justified Mickelson’s disqualification.

    Daly said he intentionally hit a moving ball out of frustration, as protest over the USGA’s unfair hole locations.

    Mickelson said he intentionally hit a moving ball on the 13th green Saturday at Shinnecock Hills to try prevent his ball from rolling off the green. He said he knew the rules and was intentionally breaking them to gain an advantage. He compared it to using the rules to get a better lie with a drop, but there’s a difference between using the rules to your advantage and breaking them to gain an advantage.

    The difference in those motivations, as Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee pointed out, opened the interpretation of the violation as a serious breach worthy of disqualification.

    The question of whether Mickelson’s manipulation of the rules was serious enough to invoke disqualification as a breach of etiquette under Rule 33-7 was dismissed by the USGA as inappropriate.

    It should be noted that the USGA and R&A should be applauded for its monumental overhaul of the Rules of Golf, a rules modernization going into effect next year. It’s a welcomed simplification of the rules that required an exhaustive review.

    This week’s complications show the unrelenting challenges they continue to tackle.

    We leave this U.S. Open with history being made, with Koepka joining Ben Hogan and Curtis Strange as just the third players since World War II to win the title in back-to-back years.

    We also leave hoping the USGA can deliver four days of next year’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach as free of controversy as it delivered the first two days at Shinnecock Hills, because this year’s championship felt half baked.

    Will Gray contributed to this report.

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    Brandel rips USGA: 'There's no obvious leadership'

    By Golf Channel DigitalJune 18, 2018, 1:29 am

    The 2018 U.S. Open will certainly be remembered for Brooks Koepka's successful title defense.

    But there's no doubt that it will also be remembered for Phil Mickelson's decision to hit a moving golf ball on Saturday, for the USGA's decision not to disqualify him, and for the governing body once again losing control of Shinnecock Hills over the weekend.

    Speaking on "Live From the U.S. Open" on Sunday night, analyst Brandel Chamblee took the USGA and its leadership to task for more than just the inconsistent playing conditions this week.

    His comments - edited and condensed for clarity - appear below:

    "Something was amiss in a big, big way [at Shinnecock Hills]. I think the USGA has lost a lot of the trust of the golf world. They've done it for numerous reasons.

    "On their watch, they missed COR – the rebound effect in drivers. They missed the rebound effect and the combination of the rebound effect [with] the ball. They missed it, on their watch. And now, the feeling is that they’re crying foul, even though it was on their watch. And so, essentially, the equipment companies got it done, by [the USGA’s] standards, legally.

    "On their watch, there have been huge mistakes in major championships. … We well know this one (Shinnecock in 2018) – a colossal mistake all the way across the board. The golf course was bumpy the first day; they didn’t quite get that right. It was awful the third day. And today, in a different kind of way, it was far too easy.

    "And then there’s penalties that they levy that make absolutely no sense, penalties that they don’t levy – not disqualifying Phil Mickelson yesterday. …

    "There seems to be no obvious leadership, you know, to me. No obvious leadership heading in the right direction."