Columbus U.S. Open qualifier was democracy in action

By Rex HoggardJune 3, 2014, 2:03 am

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Democracy in action.

That’s the lesson the U.S. Open teaches us each year and Monday’s sectional qualifier in Columbus for the national championship was as democratic as golf gets.

With no special exemptions, no backdoors, no safety nets, a two-time heart transplant recipient, an aging veteran and an up-and-coming Korean highlighted the list of Pinehurst-bound participants.

Only at the U.S. Open.

For the likes of Erik Compton Monday’s 36-hole marathon, which lapsed into a 38-hole day, is more than a test of golf. Following two heart transplant surgeries the physical toll is profound.

“Long days for me you can feel it in my chest,” said Compton, who endured a five-for-three playoff to decide the last of 16 spots into the U.S. Open. “You can see me all day like that (holding his shaking hand out).”

Because of Compton’s suppressed immune system he has struggled lately with allergies, weakness and last week at the Memorial Tournament he started losing his hearing in his left ear.

So when he started his day 3 over through two holes things didn’t look promising, but he rallied to shoot a 69 at Scioto Country Club, by far the more difficult of the two qualifying venues, and finished with a 71 to join the playoff at 2 under.

After missing a 10 footer at the first extra hole that would have secured him his second start at the U.S. Open, Compton calmly scrambled for par in the second playoff frame by rolling in a 6 footer in near darkness at Brookside Golf & Country Club.

“My goal at the beginning of the year was to play in more majors,” he said.

Ken Duke had a similar goal, but so far this year his putter had not been cooperative.

In 18 Tour events this season he doesn’t have a single top-10 finish primarily due to poor putting. Luckily, he didn’t need to rely on his putter in the playoff when he hit his approach shot at the first extra hole from 98 yards to 2 feet.

“I’d been putting so bad the last six months I watched that Travelers Championship (which he won in 2013) 100 times this weekend,” said Duke, who finished with rounds of 68-71. “I wasn’t as nervous over the (putt to win) the Travelers as I was over that one in the playoff.”

Ryan Blaum will join Duke and Compton at Pinehurst thanks to a charging 30 footer for birdie at the first extra hole, while Cameron Tringale and Michael Putnam – who also finished at 2 under – had to settle for alternate status at next week’s Open.

Justin Thomas knows the feeling. He had been here before – the same green, the same position, the same pressures. The only thing that was different this time for the 24-year-old second-year PGA Tour player was the outcome.

With a trip to Pinehurst on the line, Thomas played his last two holes in even par at Brookside to share medalist honors with Justin Leonard and Seung-Yul Noh at 5 under par.

Down the same damp stretch last year at the Columbus qualifier, Thomas closed with back-to-back bogeys to miss by a shot. This time he found himself in the same position on the 18th green.

“I hit my approach into the exact same spot, right up against the collar where I three-putted from last year,” said Thomas, who carded rounds of 67-70. “I’m like, here we go again. I looked forward to it this time. Figured it was a chance to try it again.”

For Leonard, the 41-year-old veteran, rounds of 69-68 served a dual purpose. The 12-time Tour winner hasn’t played his national championship since 2010 and figures Pinehurst – where he finished tied for 23rd in 2005 and tied for 15th in 1999 – is among the best Open venues for his fairways-and-greens game.

There was also the more immediate need for redemption that gave Leonard hope on Monday following a closing 78 a day earlier at the Memorial Tournament to drop into a tie for 57th place.

“To get there and getting the opportunity to play Pinehurst again that makes it a little more special,” said Leonard (69-68). “I had a horrendous day yesterday, so it was nice to come out here and get that taste out of my mouth.”

Noh, who won the Zurich Classic of New Orleans earlier this year, may have had the most interesting day, starting his second round after an opening 68 at Brookside with back-to-back bogeys. He played his next three in 4 under, including an ace at the fourth with a 5-iron on his way to a 69.

But for every story of relief and redemption on Monday in Columbus, there were 104 stories of regret. Some more painful than others.

Morgan Hoffmann stepped to the 18th tee at Brookside in fading light needing to birdie the last for a spot in the playoff. His 5 footer for birdie never touched the hole.

Danny Lee’s plight was even more painful to watch. Through 28 holes he was tied for the lead and seemingly locked to return to Pinehurst, the site of his 2008 U.S. Amateur victory.

But Lee played his last seven holes in 6 over par, including double bogeys at Nos. 12 and 16 at Scioto, and finished at 1 over and three strokes out of the playoff.

Lee and Hoffmann’s only solace was that the U.S. Open plays no favorites. It was democracy in action.

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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.”