Women can scout Pinehurst like no U.S. Open before

By Randall MellJune 8, 2014, 1:00 pm

When Jessica Korda won the Airbus LPGA Classic two weeks ago, she thanked Paul Azinger for lessons in the finer points of the short game.

The winner of the U.S. Women’s Open in two week’s time just might be thanking the men as a whole for showing the way at Pinehurst No. 2.

With the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open about to be played in back-to-back weeks on the same venue, a historic first in major championship play, the women have a chance to scout the event in ways they never have before.

With the men playing the U.S. Open first, the women and their caddies will be taking notes.

“I’ll be watching every second it’s on TV,” said Morgan Pressel, winner of the 2007 Kraft Nabisco Championship. “You’re given an early look, to see how the golf course plays. I’m sure the pins will be relatively similar, so we’ll get a good look at how shots react coming into greens. I think it will be very helpful.”

Count Michelle Wie and Inbee Park among the women who will be riveted to their television sets during the U.S. Open.

“I don’t typically watch a whole lot of golf, but I definitely will be watching a lot,” Wie said. “It’s going to be interesting, because we’ve never done this before. I’m not sure exactly what to look for, but I think the things I will be watching for are what happens with approach shots, how shots roll off greens. I think I’ll be looking to see where players are struggling from, where you don’t want to go, where you do want to go.”

Park won the U.S. Women’s Open a year ago and is eager to defend her title. She will be paying particularly close attention to what short-game choices the men make when they miss those turtle-back greens.

“I think we will be able to get a good idea of what shots to play,” Park said. “I think it’s going to be a big help seeing how they play. I’ll pay the most attention to how they chip to these greens, and to the different shots they hit around the greens.”

Park is the best putter in women’s golf, and she’s curious how much she’ll be able to use her putter from off those greens.

“I like to use my putter as many times as I can,” she said. “I think it’s the safest club in the bag around the greens. I want to putt wherever I can.”

There’s more to this than the women playing the same course. The USGA is determined to try to set up Pinehurst No. 2 so the men and women will be playing it in relatively the same conditions.

“I suppose that if I was a female playing in the U.S. Women's Open, I would be watching very, very closely that first week,” USGA executive director Mike Davis said. “Because they're going to get an idea of where a hole location is going to be, and how setup is going to be. That gets to some of the intent of having this back to back.”

The U.S. Open will be set up as a par 70 with a scorecard yardage of 7,562 yards. The women will also play it as a par 70 but from 6,649 yards.

“To the extent possible, we want these two weeks to play exactly the same, given the slightly differing ability of the men versus the women,” Davis said. “So you're going see the setup of the greens with the same speed in week one as week two. They're going to be roughly 11½ to 12 on the Stimpmeter. You're going to see us use roughly the same hole locations. You can't use the exact hole locations, for obvious reasons.”

While the aim is to set up the same green speeds, the USGA will be looking to soften the greens slightly for the women. That’s one of the reasons the women are following the men, Davis said. It’s easier to soften greens in a week’s time for the women than it would be to firm them up in a week’s time for the men, he said.

Why soften the greens for the women?

“The idea there is that if the men are hitting a wedge in, and it's kind of a bounce, stop, that’s what we’ll want for the women,” Davis said. “If the women are hitting a 6‑iron in and it's a bounce, bounce, stop. That's what we want for the men.”

Of course, so much depends on weather.

“This all sounds wonderful on paper,” Davis said. “I can assure you we have spent a lot of time thinking about this. Will we get it perfect? I can guarantee we will not get this thing perfect. I can promise you. But the idea is we're going to try to have them play the same golf course.”

The women have their concerns, and they’ve made them public. Though the USGA is trying to set it up so the men and women have different common landing areas, there will be issues with divots, especially on par 5s, where the men and women tend to lay up in the same areas.

There may be issues with  the edges of the course getting beat up with the U.S. Open getting so much more foot traffic than the women will get.

Still, there’s a unique opportunity to these back-to-back tests that LPGA commissioner Mike Whan is embracing.

“Is there the potential more people will care about the U.S. Women’s Open than ever before? Absolutely,” Whan said. “Will some of that be related to who hit out of what divot? Yeah, probably. Will that be frustrating for players, yes? But when you ask me as commissioner, this is a huge upside opportunity.”

For so many of the game’s best women, there’s keen interest in the men’s game, in what they can learn from watching the best men.

Korda sought out Azinger, the 12-time PGA Tour winner and ESPN analyst, for help earlier this year. She used lessons learned to help her win the Airbus LPGA Classic last month, her second title this season.

“I was struggling a lot with my short game, in general,” Korda said. “I wanted to be a bit more creative, and who’s better to go to than Paul Azinger? He helped me a lot around the greens and on the greens as well.”

That short game work should come in handy at Pinehurst No. 2, where it’s so difficult to hit greens.

“When I first started to work with Jessica, she was putting from 30 feet, 40 feet off the green, if she could,” Azinger said. “She really couldn't pitch the ball in the air. Her bunker game wasn't sharp at all. I just worked with her on what I felt were age‑old fundamentals, just technique on how to pitch the ball in the air, and how to use the bounce, and get rid of that leading edge. The leading edge is fatal when you're trying to get the ball in the air, and I got her to understand that. She's a mega-talent, as gifted an athlete as there is on that tour.”

Wie can relate to lessons learned from the men. She plays out of the Bear’s Club in Jupiter, Fla., where she often practices with the men. She has learned a lot practicing there with Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Camilo Villegas.

“I work on the short game a lot with them,” Wie said. “We have flop-shot contests, who can hit it the closest, and we’ll see who can pull off the most ridiculous shots. I think it’s the mental part, though, the way they play, that has benefitted me the most. I don’t want to say they play carefree, but they’ll take risks, and if they don’t work out, it’s not the end of the world. I feel like I’ve learned a lot from that.”

The education promises to continue at Pinehurst No. 2.

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Lopez fires flawless 63 for lead in Arkansas

By Associated PressJune 23, 2018, 12:41 am

ROGERS, Ark. – Since its first year on the LPGA Tour in 2007, the crowds at the NW Arkansas Championship have belonged to Stacy Lewis.

Another former University of Arkansas star staked her claim as the hometown favorite Friday when Gaby Lopez shot a career-low 8-under 63 to take the first-round lead at Pinnacle Country Club.

Like Lewis, the two-time winner of the tournament, Lopez starred as a three-time All-American for the Razorbacks before joining the LPGA Tour in 2016. Despite flashes of potential, Lopez had yet to join Lewis among the ranks of the world's best - missing the cut in her last two tournaments and entering this week ranked 136th in the world.

For a day, at least, the Mexican standout felt right at home atop the leaderboard in her adopted home state.

''I feel like home,'' Lopez said. ''I feel so, so comfortable out here, because I feel that everyone and every single person out here is just rooting for us.''

Full-field scores from the Walmart Arkansas Championship

Moriya Jutanugarn was a stroke back along with Minjee Lee, Catriona Matthew, Nasa Hataoka, Lizette Salas, Mirim Lee and Aditi Ashok. Six others finished at 6 under on a day when only 26 of the 144 players finished over par, thanks to some mid-week rain that softened the greens and calm skies throughout the day.

Jutanugarn finished second at the tournament last year and is trying to win for the second time on the LPGA Tour this year. Her younger sister, Ariya, is already a two-time winner this year and shot an opening-round 66.

Lewis, the former world No. 1 who won the event in 2007 in 2014, finished with a 66. She's expecting her first child in early November

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

Friday was Lopez's long-awaited day to standout, though, much to the delight of the pro-Arkansas crowd.

After missing the cut her last two times out, Lopez took some time off and returned home to Mexico City to rest her mind and work on her game. The work paid off with two straight birdies to open her round and a 6-under 30 on her front nine.

Lopez needed only 25 putts and finished two shots off the course record of 61, and she overcame a poor drive on the par-5 18th to finish with a par and keep her place at the top of the leaderboard. Her previous low score was a 64 last year, and she matched her career best by finishing at 8 under.

''(Rest) is a key that no one really truly understands until you're out here,'' Lopez said. ''... Sometimes resting is actually the part you've got to work on.''

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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.”

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

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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.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

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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

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

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.”