America's Ryder Cup future depends on new blood

By Randall MellOctober 30, 2014, 5:06 pm

The first thing the American Ryder Cup task force should look at is the one thing Tom Watson got right.

Watson’s boldest move wasn’t benching Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley for all of Saturday in the United States’ loss in Scotland last month. It was seeing that the next generation of young stars is the best hope American has in cleaning up this Ryder Cup mess.

Watson’s boldest move was pairing rookies Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed.

His next boldest move was sending them off first and second in Sunday singles with Rickie Fowler right behind them.

Watson was desperate at that point, but maybe it took being there for him to finally see the real solution was investing in the fresh, new faces before him. Not just young faces, but new blood, like 35-year-old Jimmy Walker, who played well in Scotland.

So with this new wraparound PGA Tour season already rolling, the hope for an American Ryder Cup turnaround may ride more on what fresh, new faces step up this season than on anything the PGA of America’s task forces does.

There’s this little international team event known as the Presidents Cup that will serve as a nice warm up next year for evolving American talent with an eye toward the 2016 Ryder Cup. Will Chris Kirk continue to develop and make the U.S. Presidents Cup team? He’s 29. Will Billy Horschel? He’s 27.

The Presidents Cup will be staged at Jack Nicklaus Golf Club Korea in Incheon in October of next year. With the PGA Tour beginning its fall Asian swing at the CIMB Classic this week, it’s a good time to look at which up-and-comers may be best equipped to try and make their first U.S. team when the Americans return to Asia for the Presidents Cup next year.

The candidates:

• Billy Horschel, 27 – The FedEx Cup champion wants to parlay his confidence and momentum from the playoffs into success on larger stages. He has soared to No. 13 in the Official World Golf Ranking. He’s the highest ranked American who hasn’t made a Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup team. His FedEx Cup playoff victories at the BMW Championship and Tour Championship in September portend greater success.

• Chris Kirk, 29 – Watson skipped over him making his captain’s picks, which ought to provide an extra dose of motivation for Kirk to try to qualify for the American Presidents Cup team on points. There’s a long, long way to go, but he’s fourth on the points list heading to the CIMB Classic. With Kirk at No. 23 in the Official World Golf Ranking, Horschel is the only American who ranks ahead of him who hasn’t made a Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup team.

• Brooks Koepka, 24 –Maybe all that experience earning his stripes on the European Tour and Challenge Tour will bring some other Euro mojo with him. Koepka has a flair for the dramatic, winning his PGA Tour card the hard way earlier this year. He tied for fourth at the U.S. Open, winning his PGA Tour card through non-member winnings. He tied for 15th at the PGA Championship.

• Russell Henley, 25 –There are flashes of the spectacular in this guy, who won in his PGA Tour rookie debut, breaking the Sony Open scoring record by four shots. He beat an all-star field, including Rory McIlroy in a four-man playoff, in winning the Honda Classic in the spring.

• Harris English, 25 – With victories in each of the last two seasons and seven top-10 finishes a year ago, English is an emerging young talent looking to take another step up in class this season. He’s a big hitter who hits a lot of greens and makes a lot of putts. It’s a formidable combination.

• Gary Woodland, 30 –The big hitting two-time PGA Tour winner is steadily climbing his way back into the game's big picture.

• Morgan Hoffmann, 25 – Was that improbable FedEx Cup charge - going from No. 124 before the playoffs to inside the top 30 at the Tour Championship - a precursor to a swifter, greater climb this season?

There is other promise in the talents of Brendon Todd, Ben Martin, Erik Compton, Robert Streb, Brian Harman, Matt Every and Kevin Chappell. This early start to the wraparound season is an opportunity for these guys to follow Jimmy Walker’s lead last year and make early impressions.

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Berger more than ready to rebound at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:54 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Daniel Berger hopes that this year he gets to be on the other end of a viral moment at the Travelers Championship.

Berger was a hard-luck runner-up last year at TPC River Highlands, a spectator as Jordan Spieth holed a bunker shot to defeat him in a playoff. It was the second straight year that the 25-year-old came up just short outside Hartford, as he carried a three-shot lead into the 2016 event before fading to a tie for fifth.

While he wasn’t lacking any motivation after last year’s close call, Berger got another dose last week at the U.S. Open when he joined Tony Finau as a surprise participant in the final group Sunday, only to shoot a 73 and drift to a T-6 finish.

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“It was one of the best experiences of my professional golf career so far. I feel like I’m going to be in such a better place next time I’m in that position, having felt those emotions and kind of gone through it,” Berger said. “There was a lot of reflection after that because I felt like I played good enough to get it done Sunday. I didn’t make as many putts as I wanted to, but I hit a lot of really good putts. And that’s really all you can do.”

Berger missed the cut earlier this month to end his quest for three straight titles in Memphis, but his otherwise consistent season has now included six top-20 finishes since January. After working his way into contention last week and still with a score to settle at TPC River Highlands, he’s eager to get back to work against another star-studded field.

“I think all these experiences you just learn from,” Berger said. “I think last week, having learned from that, I think that’s even going to make me a little better this week. So I’m excited to get going.”

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Rory tired of the near-misses, determined to close

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:46 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Rory McIlroy has returned to the Travelers Championship with an eye on bumping up his winning percentage.

McIlroy stormed from the back of the pack to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, but that remains his lone worldwide win since the 2016 Tour Championship. It speaks to McIlroy’s considerable ability and lofty expectations that, even with a number of other high finishes this season, he is left unsatisfied.

“I feel like I’ve had five realistic chances to win this year, and I’ve been able to close out one of them. That’s a bit disappointing, I guess,” McIlroy said. “But at least I’ve given myself five chances to win golf tournaments, which is much more than I did last year.”

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The most memorable of McIlroy’s near-misses is likely the Masters, when he played alongside Patrick Reed in Sunday’s final group but struggled en route to a T-5 finish. But more frustrating in the Ulsterman’s eyes were his runner-up at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, when he led by two shots with eight holes to go, and a second-place showing behind Francesco Molinari at the BMW PGA Championship in May.

“There’s been some good golf in there,” he said. “I feel like I let Dubai and Wentworth get away a little bit.”

He’ll have a chance to rectify that trend this week at TPC River Highlands, where he finished T-17 last year in his tournament debut and liked the course and the tournament enough to keep it on his schedule. It comes on the heels of a missed cut at the U.S. Open, when he was 10 over through 11 holes and never got on track. McIlroy views that result as more of an aberration during a season in which he has had plenty of chances to contend on the weekend.

“I didn’t necessarily play that badly last week. I feel like if I play similarly this week, I might have a good chance to win,” McIlroy said. “I think when you play in conditions like that, it magnifies parts of your game that maybe don’t stack up quite as good as the rest of your game, and it magnified a couple of things for me that I worked on over the weekend.”

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Sunday run at Shinnecock gave Reed even more confidence

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:08 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While many big names are just coming around to the notion that the Travelers Championship is worth adding to the schedule, Patrick Reed has been making TPC River Highlands one of his favorite haunts for years.

Reed will make his seventh straight appearance outside Hartford, where he tied for fifth last year and was T-11 the year before that. He is eager to get back to the grind after a stressful week at the U.S. Open, both because of his past success here and because it will offer him a chance to build on a near-miss at Shinnecock Hills.

Reed started the final round three shots off the lead, but he quickly stormed toward the top of the leaderboard and became one of Brooks Koepka’s chief threats after birdies on five of his first seven holes. Reed couldn’t maintain the momentum in the middle of the round, carding three subsequent bogeys, and ultimately tied for fourth.

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It was a bittersweet result, but Reed is focusing on the positives after taking a couple days to reflect.

“If you would have told me that I had a chance to win coming down Sunday, I would have been pleased,” Reed said. “I felt like I just made too many careless mistakes towards the end, and because of that, you’re not going to win at any major making careless mistakes, especially on Sunday.”

Reed broke through for his first major title at the Masters, and he has now finished fourth or better in three straight majors dating back to a runner-up at the PGA last summer. With another chance to add to that record next month in Scotland, he hopes to carry the energy from last week’s close call into this week’s event on a course where he feels right at home.

“It just gives me confidence, more than anything,” Reed said. “Of course I would have loved to have closed it out and win, but it was a great week all in all, and there’s a lot of stuff I can take from it moving forward. That’s how I’m looking at it.”

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Koepka back to work, looking to add to trophy collection

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 8:53 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Days after ensuring the U.S. Open trophy remained in his possession for another year, Brooks Koepka went back to work.

Koepka flew home to Florida after successfully defending his title at Shinnecock Hills, celebrating the victory Monday night with Dustin Johnson, Paulina Gretzky, swing coach Claude Harmon III and a handful of close friends. But he didn’t fully unwind because of a decision to honor his commitment to the Travelers Championship, becoming the first player to tee it up the week after a U.S. Open win since Justin Rose in 2013.

Koepka withdrew from the Travelers pro-am, but he flew north to Connecticut on Wednesday and arrived to TPC River Highlands around 3 p.m., quickly heading to the driving range to get in a light practice session.

“It still hasn’t sunk in, to be honest with you,” Koepka said. “I’m still focused on this week. It was just like, ‘All right, if I can get through this week, then I’m going to be hanging with my buddies next week.’ I know then maybe it’ll sink in, and I’ll get to reflect on it a little bit more.”

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Koepka’s plans next week with friends in Boston meant this week’s event outside Hartford made logistical sense. But he was also motivated to play this week because, plainly, he hasn’t had that many playing opportunities this year after missing nearly four months with a wrist injury.

“I’ve had so many months at home being on the couch. I don’t need to spend any more time on the couch,” Koepka said. “As far as skipping, it never crossed my mind.”

Koepka’s legacy was undoubtedly bolstered by his win at Shinnecock, as he became the first player in nearly 30 years to successfully defend a U.S. Open title. But he has only one other PGA Tour win to his credit, that being the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open, and his goal for the rest of the season is to make 2018 his first year with multiple trophies on the mantle.

“If you’re out here for more than probably 15 events, it gives you a little better chance to win a couple times. Being on the sidelines isn’t fun,” Koepka said. “Keep doing what we’re doing and just try to win multiple times every year. I feel like I have the talent. I just never did it for whatever reason. Always felt like we ran into a buzzsaw. So just keep plugging away.”