No One Favorite at US Open

By Mercer BaggsMay 22, 2004, 4:00 pm
What does it take to win the U.S. Open? The easiest answer ' without getting into patience, fortitude and good fortune ' is: fairways and greens.
Padraig Harrington may have summed it up best when he said at last years U.S. Open: You want to be sort of like a machine, just hit it down the fairway, hit it on the green you want to be the most boring golfer around this week.
If boring is an act of straight-forward repetitiveness, then Tiger Woods, right now, is a three-ring circus of fun.
Hes left more often than right; and almost seems to be right more often than straight. He hit an average of 42.9 percent of his fairways at the Wachovia Championship and tied for 67th in driving accuracy that week ' only 72 players made the cut.
And he was even worse the following week at the EDS Byron Nelson Championship, where he hit only 41 percent for the week.
Consequently, he was also near the bottom of the barrel in his last two starts in hitting greens in regulation. Yet, thanks to his putter, he was able to contend, finishing in the top 4 on both occasions.
But a faithful putter will be hard pressed to makeup for his driving sins at Shinnecock.
Therefore, for the first time since he turned professional, Woods may not be the betting favorite in a major championship.
In fact, while there has to be an odds-on favorite, there may not be a single individual who truly stands head-and-shoulders above the field as the man to beat.
Instead, there is a group ' serious contenders who deserve serious consideration. Of course, there are still four PGA Tour events leading up to the U.S. Open, meaning things can certainly change and one man can step to the forefront ' or others (Davis Love, Chad Campbell and Darren Clarke come to mind) could add their names to this list.
But for now, these are the men to beat (in no particular order). And it doesn't even include last year's champion, Jim Furyk, who is unable to defend following wrist surgery in March.
Vijay Singh
Singh leads the tour this year in earnings and wins. Another victory prior to Shinnecock may not move him to No. 1 in the world rankings, but it will likely make him the primary target at the Open.
Singh has five career top-10s in this event, with his best finish a tie for third at Pinehurst in 1999. He shared the 36-hole lead with Furyk a year ago at Olympia Fields. Furyk shot 67-72 on the weekend to win; Singh shot 72-78 to tie for 20th.
But what may prove the biggest factor in making Iron Man the iron-clad favorite is his ability to hit his irons. Singh leads the tour in greens hit in regulation ' a most telling statistic. Five of the last seven U.S. Open winners led the tournament in greens hit in regulation.
Phil Mickelson
Mickelson always said he wasnt trying to win one major, he was trying to win multiple majors. And that one major would lead to many. Now that he has discarded the major-sized monkey from his back, he feels ready to fulfill his prophecy.
I'm looking forward to the U.S. Open this year, he said last week at the Byron Nelson. It's not because I won't have to answer the question of a guy who's never won a major. It's because I have a lot of confidence now, a lot of belief that I can break through and win the big tournaments.
Despite missing the cut at the Nelson ' just his second finish outside the top 10 all season, he has a lot of positive Open vibes, particularly in the Empire State.
He has twice finished runner-up in this event, including an emotionally charged rock-and-roll-type performance at Bethpage in 2002. He also finished tied for fourth in 1995, the last time the Open visited Shinnecock.
Tiger Woods
Hes close. Or so he repeatedly says. Closer than most men who hit only three of 14 fairways in the final round of an event, anyway.
If he continues to misfire he could miss the cut at the Open, where he hasnt finished outside the top 20 since he was an amateur. But he has four weeks to piece his long game together.
The short game is intact. Hes been scrambling like a working mom of four, and making it look routine. For someone of his unique ability, three extra fairways hit a round could lead to a third Open title -- and his first major since the 2002 Open.
I have one more tournament, Memorial, and hopefully my game will be ready for the U.S. Open, he said after missing out on a playoff at the Byron Nelson by a stroke.
It is close. It is close.
Ernie Els
Els is a two-time Open champion (1994, 97) and is the third-ranked player in the world, so he is always among the favored group.
Were it not for Mickelson ' or perhaps destiny ' he would be the reigning Masters champion. Since that defeat, devastating as it may have been, hes tied for third at the Heritage and tied for seventh in Dallas.
This years Sony Open champion will need that energy reserve as he is currently in the first third of a six-week stretch of golf. It started at the Nelson and will conclude at the Open. In between he will play twice on the European Tour (Deutsche Bank-SAP Open and Volvo PGA) and twice on the PGA Tour (Memorial and Buick Classic).
Burnout may be a cause for concern, but the Long Island venue may prove more troubling. Els has missed only two cuts in the Open: 1995 and 99. The defending champion going into Shinnecock in 95, Els missed the cut by a shot.
I never really felt comfortable on that course, he said. But Im looking forward to (returning). I can only play better, I believe.
Mike Weir
Resolved from the pressure of having a major title to defend, Weir should be far more relaxed than he was at Augusta, where he missed the cut.
Weir tied for third a year ago at Olympia Fields, easily his best finish in five career Open starts.
Since defending his Nissan Open crown in February, Weir has yet to notch another top 10. Still, hes a steady driver of the ball (49th on tour in driving accuracy), is consistent with his irons (43rd on tour) and is proficient with his putter (5th in putts per greens hit in regulation).
And nothing beats major experience.
Sergio Garcia
A week ago he would have been considered more pretender than contender. But that was a week ago. Now hes added some substance to his style.
Garcias revamped swing was tried in Dallas and appears true. He led the Byron Nelson field in greens hit in regulation ' and we know how important that statistic is in a U.S. Open, tied for sixth in driving accuracy and tied for 26th in putting.
He hit all 18 greens in regulation in the third round, and missed only one fairway that day. He struggled some on Sunday, but did what was necessary to win for the first time on tour in over two years.
'His swing is certainly going to hold up in major championships now,' Els said of Garcia. 'I think you'll see the real Sergio come through in the next couple of years.'
Garcia has played well in past Opens, tying for 12th in 2001 and finishing fourth in 2002. His appearance at Bethpage two years ago, however, was marred by controversy (he accused the USGA of showing favoritism towards Woods) and confrontation (he was the victim of verbal abuse from spectators and reacted with a one-finger salute on one occasion).
But Shinnecock is not Bethpage. The inebriated and the profane should be more of a minority.
Its not the venue, but the tournament itself that could doom Garcia. No European has won the U.S. Open since Tony Jacklin in 1970. But that's another story for another time.
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    Recovering Thomas thinks Match Play could help cause

    By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 10:07 pm

    AUSTIN, Texas – It’s been a tough couple of days for Justin Thomas, and he hasn’t played an event in three weeks.

    The world’s second-ranked player had his wisdom teeth removed on March 7 following the WGC-Mexico Championship and has been recovering ever since.

    “I'm feeling OK. As funny as it is, as soon as I got over my wisdom teeth, I got a little strep throat,” Thomas said on Tuesday at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. “I was pretty worried yesterday, to be honest, how I was going to be doing, but I feel a lot better today and just keep taking medicine and hopefully it will be good.”

    Thomas, who is listed in the Tour media guide as 5-foot-10, 145 pounds, said he lost about 6 pounds when he had his wisdom teeth removed and has struggled to put that weight back on because of his bout with strep throat.

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    As a result, his energy levels are low, which is a particular concern considering the marathon nature of the Match Play, which could include as many as seven rounds if he were to advance to Sunday’s championship match. Thomas, however, said the format could actually make things easier this week.

    “I told my dad, I only have to beat one person each day. I don't have to beat the whole field,” said Thomas, who has won just one match in two starts at the Match Play. “If it was stroke play then I may have a little harder time. But hopefully each day I'll get better and better. Who knows, maybe that will help me win a match in this golf tournament, because I've had a pretty hard time in the past.”

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    Spieth thought Mickelson blew him off as a kid

    By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 7:50 pm

    AUSTIN, Texas – Phil Mickelson is widely recognized as one of the PGA Tour’s most accommodating players when it comes to the fans and signing autographs.

    Lefty will famously spend hours after rounds signing autographs, but sometimes perception can deviate from reality, as evidenced by Jordan Spieth’s encounter with Mickelson years ago when he was a junior golfer.

    “I think I was at the [AT&T] Byron Nelson with my dad and Phil Mickelson and Davis Love were on the putting green. I was yelling at them, as I now get annoyed while I'm practicing when I'm getting yelled at, and they were talking,” Spieth recalled. “When they finished, Phil was pulled off in a different direction and Davis came and signed for me. And I thought for the longest time that Phil just blew me off. And Davis was like the nicest guy. And Phil, I didn't care for as much for a little while because of that.”

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    Entering his sixth full season on Tour, Spieth now has a drastically different perspective on that day.

    “[Mickelson] could have been late for media. He could have been having a sponsor obligation. He could have been going over to sign for a kid’s area where there was a hundred of them,” Spieth said. “There's certainly been kids that probably think I've blown them off, too, which was never my intention. It would have never been Phil's intention either.”

    Spieth said he has spoken with Mickelson about the incident since joining the Tour.

    “He probably responded with a Phil-like, ‘Yeah, I knew who you were, and I didn't want to go over there and sign it,’ something like that,” Spieth laughed. “I’ve gotten to see him in person and really see how genuine he is with everybody he comes in contact with. Doesn't matter who it is. And he's a tremendous role model and I just wasn't aware back then.”

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    This week, let the games(manship) begin

    By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 7:47 pm

    AUSTIN, Texas – The gentleman’s game is almost entirely devoid of anything even approaching trash talk or gamesmanship.

    What’s considered the norm in other sports is strictly taboo in golf - at least that’s the standard for 51 weeks out of the year. That anomaly, however, can be wildly entertaining.

    During Monday’s blind draw to determine this week’s 16 pods, Pat Perez was the first to suggest that this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play is the exception to the stoic rule on the PGA Tour.

    “Me and Branden [Grace] played a nine-hole match today and were chirping at each other the entire time,” Perez laughed. “Stuff like, ‘go in the trees.’ We were laughing about it, I didn’t get mad, I hit it in the trees.”

    Although Perez and Grace may have been on the extreme end of the trash-talk spectrum, it’s widely understood that unlike the steady diet of stroke-play stops in professional golf, the Match Play and the Ryder Cup are both chances to test some of the game’s boundaries.

    “There’s been a couple of different instances, both in the Ryder Cup. I can't share them with you, I'm sorry,” laughed Jordan Spieth, before adding. “I think they [the comments] were indifferent to me and helped [U.S. partner Patrick Reed].

    Often the gamesmanship is subtle, so much so an opponent probably doesn’t even realize what’s happening.

    Jason Day, for example, is a two-time winner of this event and although he was reluctant to go into details about all of his “tricks,” he did explain his mindset if he finds himself trailing in a match.

    “Always walk forward in front of the person that you're playing against, just so you're letting them know that you're pushing forward and you're also letting them know that you're still hanging around,” Day explained. “People feed off body language. If I'm looking across and the guy's got his shoulders slumped and his head is down, you can tell he's getting frustrated, that's when you push a little bit harder.”

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    Some moments are not so innocent, as evidenced by a story from Paul Casey from a match during his junior days growing up in England.

    “I remember a player’s ball was very close to my line, as his coin was very close to my line and we were still both about 10 feet away and he kind of looked at me,” Casey recalled. “I assumed he looked at me to confirm whether his marker was in my line and it needed to be moved. I said, ‘That's OK there.’ So he picked [his coin] up. And then of course he lost his ability to understand English all of a sudden.”

    While the exploits this week won’t be nearly as egregious, there have been a handful of heated encounters at the Match Play. In 2015 when this event was played at Harding Park in San Francisco, Keegan Bradley and Miguel Angel Jimenez went nose to nose when the Spaniard attempted to intervene in a ruling that Bradley was taking and the incident even spilled over into the locker room after the match.

    But if those types of encounters are rare, there’s no shortage of mind games that will take place over the next few days at Austin Country Club.

    “It's part of it. It should be fun,” Spieth said. “There should be some gamesmanship. That's the way it is in every other sport, we just never play one-on-one or team versus team like other sports do. That's why at times it might seem way out of the ordinary. If every tournament were match play, I don't think that would be unusual.”

    It also helps heat things up if opponents have some history together. On Tuesday, Rory McIlroy was asked if he’s run across any gamesmanship at the Match Play. While the Northern Irishman didn’t think there would be much trash talking going on this week, he did add with a wry smile, “Patrick Reed isn’t in my bracket.”

    McIlroy and Reed went head-to-head in an epic singles duel at the 2016 Ryder Cup, which the American won 1 up. The duo traded plenty of clutch shots during the match, with Reed wagging his finger at McIlroy following a particularly lengthy birdie putt and McIlroy spurring the crowd with roars of, “I can’t hear you.”

    It was an example of how chippy things can get at the Match Play that when McIlroy was asked if he had any advice for Spieth, who drew Reed in his pod this week, his answer had a bit of a sharp edge.

    “Don't ask for any drops,” laughed McIlroy, a not-so-subtle reference to Reed’s comment last week at Bay Hill after being denied free relief by a rules official, “I guess my name needs to be Jordan Spieth, guys,” Reed said on Sunday.

    Put another way, this is not your grandfather’s game. This is the Match Play where trash talking and gamesmanship are not only acceptable, but can also be extremely entertaining.

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    Romo set to make PGA Tour debut at Punta Cana

    By Will GrayMarch 20, 2018, 6:43 pm

    While much of the attention in golf this week will be focused on the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin, Tony Romo may send a few eyeballs toward the Caribbean.

    The former quarterback and current CBS NFL analyst will make his PGA Tour debut this week, playing on a sponsor invite at the Corales Punta Cana Resort & Club Championship in the Dominican Republic. The exemption was announced last month when Romo played as an amateur at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and he's apparently been hard at work ever since.

    "I'll be treating it very serious," Romo told reporters Tuesday. "My wife will tell you she hasn't seen me much over the last month. But if you know me at all, I think you know if I care about something I'm going to commit to it 100 percent. So like I said. you'll get the best I've got this week."

    Romo retired from the NFL last year and plays to a plus-0.3 handicap. In addition to his participation in the Pebble Beach event, he has tried to qualify for the U.S. Open multiple times and last month played a North Texas PGA mini-tour event as an amateur.

    According to Romo, one of the key differences between pro football and golf is the fact that his former position is entirely about reactive decisions, while in golf "you're trying to commit wholeheartedly before you ever pull the club out of your bag."

    "I'm not worried about getting hit before I hit the ball," Romo said. "It's at my own tempo, my own speed, in this sport. Sometimes that's difficult, and sometimes that's easier depending on the situation."

    Romo admitted that he would have preferred to have a couple extra weeks to prepare, but recently has made great strides in his wedge game which "was not up to any Tour standard." The first-tee jitters can't be avoided, but Romo hopes to settle in after battling nerves for the first three or four holes Thursday.

    Romo hopes to derive an added comfort factor from his golf in the Dallas area, where he frequently plays with a group of Tour pros. While Steph Curry traded texts with a few pros before his tournament debut last summer on the Tour, Romo expects his phone to remain silent until he puts a score on the board.

    "I think they're waiting to either tell me 'Congrats' or 'I knew it, terrible,'" Romo said. "Something along those lines. They're probably going to wait to see which way the wind's blowing before they send them."

    Romo will tee off at 8:10 a.m. ET Thursday alongside Dru Love and Denny McCarthy.