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Déjà vu all over again: Fowler back in major hunt

By Rex HoggardAugust 9, 2018, 7:50 pm

ST. LOUIS – It’s like Grand Slam clockwork. Rickie Fowler goes out and does Rickie Fowler things, moves into the hunt at a major, and then waits patiently for the inevitable.

Question: Are you aware of how many majors it took Phil Mickelson to win [his first] major and, if so, does that inspire you and give you hope?

Answer: I always have hope.

If that sounds prepared, maybe even rehearsed, Fowler should be forgiven. He’s fielded the same give-and-take for the better part of his career.

In 2014, when he completed the Top 5 Slam with top-5 finishes in each of the year’s four majors, Fowler endured the ever-present slings and arrows of a public that celebrates victories, not near-misses.

In 2017, when he entered the final round of the U.S. Open just two strokes off the lead, his long-awaited Grand Slam tilt seemed like a fait accompli, a foregone conclusion. It was all there, the talent, the determination, the experience, every piece of the complicated major puzzle dropping neatly into the proper order.

“Yes, but he still has to do it,” warned Fowler’s swing coach, Butch Harmon, at the time.

Fowler would tie for fifth at Erin Hills.

Fowler’s most recent brush with the Grand Slam ceiling came in April at the Masters, when he closed his week with a birdie at the last hole to move to within a stroke of Patrick Reed.

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The PGA Championship is Fowler’s 36th major start and he remains winless in the game’s biggest events. In his defense, sometimes you lose a major and sometimes you get beat; this year’s Masters qualifies as the latter for Fowler, after Reed played flawlessly down the stretch for victory.

“It wasn't something that I needed to get over, it was definitely a great week, I left everything out there on the golf course so it wasn't necessarily like, ‘Oh, man, what if I would have hit this shot instead of this shot,’” Fowler explained on Thursday at Bellerive. “The back nine I executed nearly perfect. After I birdied 12, I really thought I could birdie in.”

Fowler is back at it this week at the PGA Championship, opening the year’s final major with a ball-striking clinic, hitting 11 of 14 fairways and 16 of 18 greens in regulation for a 5-under 65.

Fowler was two strokes clear of the field when he walked off a steamy golf course [he finished the day one back of Gary Woodland] and his lone bogey was a testament to how well played. For nearly any other player, that kind of round to begin a major would be a reason to celebrate. For Fowler, it was a reason to answer those all-too-familiar parade of questions.

Question: Are there times when you sit back and wonder to yourself, when is my time going to come?

Answer: You can't force the issue. It relates to some of our game plan and how we're going about this week as far as just trying to play within ourselves and not do anything extra special. I don't have to play special to win.

Fowler’s plight is a curious one. His four PGA Tour victories are a tribute to his talent, and his triumph at the 2015 Players Championship would qualify in many circles as a “major light.” But when compared to his celebrity, however unfair that might be, there is a conversation to be had regarding unfulfilled potential.

The 29-year-old is pretty good at building firewalls between himself and the noise. He knows what will be said about his opening 65 and his chances to end his Grand Slam drought, and he’s also learned, through a decade of trial and mostly error, that nothing good comes from those types of goal-based expectations.

“I'm looking forward to the days to come and like I mentioned a few times, really all we can do is take care of each day,” he said. “It sounds cliché, hole by hole, shot by shot, but Thursday you can check the success box and move on to Friday.”

Fowler isn’t hiding behind the platitudes, he’s living by them. He may still be unsure exactly what it takes to clear the Grand Slam hurdle, but fixating on the outcome certainly isn’t the answer.

Fowler explained he still hasn’t watched the highlights of the final round from this year’s Masters, whether if that’s by design or accident is unclear, but he has a general idea of what transpired on that Sunday.

“Jordan [Spieth] told me Patrick had a long putt on 17 from off the green, it hit the pin to kind of stay on the green type of thing. Saying that's a good break or not, don't know,” said Fowler, whose 65 on Day 1 matched his lowest round in a major. “Sometimes that's something you need to get over the hump to get the job done that week.”

Perhaps that kind of break is exactly what Fowler needs to summit the only mountain in golf that remains for him, maybe this is the week he gets his break. Of all the predictable questions that come his way at majors, it’s the one answer that continues to elude him.

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Bhatia loses U.S. Am match after caddie-cart incident

By Ryan LavnerAugust 16, 2018, 2:21 am

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – One of the hottest players in amateur golf had his U.S. Amateur run end Wednesday under unusual circumstances.

Akshay Bhatia, the 16-year-old left-hander who has been dominating the junior golf circuit over the past year, squandered a late lead in his eventual 19-hole loss to Bradford Tilley in the Round of 64.

Bhatia was all square against Tilley as they played Pebble Beach’s par-5 14th hole. After knocking his second shot onto the green, Bhatia and his caddie, Chris Darnell, stopped to use the restroom. Bhatia walked up to the green afterward, but Darnell asked what he thought was a USGA official for a ride up to the green.

“The gentleman was wearing a USGA pullover,” Darnell explained afterward. “I asked if I could get a ride to the green to keep up pace, and he said yes. So I hopped on the back, got up to the green, hopped off and thought nothing of it.”

Conditions of the competition prohibit players and caddies from riding on any form of transportation during a stipulated round unless authorized.

It turns out that the cart that Darnell rode on was not driven by a USGA official. Rather, it was just a volunteer wearing USGA apparel. A rules official who was in the area spotted the infraction and assessed Bhatia an adjustment penalty, so instead of winning the hole with a birdie-4 to move 1 up, the match remained all square.

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Even more interesting was what Darnell said happened earlier in the match.

“I had already seen the other caddie in our group do it on the ninth hole,” Darnell said. “Same thing – USGA pullover, drove him from the bathroom up to the fairway – so I assumed it was fine. I didn’t point it out at the time because everything seemed kosher. He had the USGA stuff on, and I didn’t think anything of it.”

Bhatia won the 15th hole to go 1 up, but lost the 17th and 19th holes with bogeys to lose the match. He didn’t blame the outcome on the cart incident.  

“What can you do? I’ll have plenty of opportunities to play in this tournament, so I’m not too upset about it,” he said. “It’s just frustrating because I deserved to win that match. That wasn’t the outcome I wanted, but I can’t do anything about it.”

Bhatia, of Wake Forest, N.C., has been a dominant force in the junior ranks, going back-to-back at the Junior PGA (including this dramatic hole-out), capturing the AJGA Polo, taking the Sage Valley Invitational and reaching the finals of the U.S. Junior.

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1, 2, 3 out: Thornberry, Suh, Morikawa lose at U.S. Am

By Ryan LavnerAugust 16, 2018, 1:14 am

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – The top three players in the world had a tough afternoon Wednesday at Pebble Beach.

Braden Thornberry, Justin Suh and Collin Morikawa – Nos. 1-3, respectively, in the World Amateur Golf Ranking – all lost their Round of 64 matches at the U.S. Amateur.

Thornberry lost, 2 and 1, to Jesus Montenegro of Argentina. As the No. 1 amateur in the world, the Ole Miss senior was in line to receive the McCormack Medal, which would exempt him into both summer Opens in 2019, provided he remains amateur. But now he’ll need to wait and see how the rankings shake out.

Suh and Morikawa could have played each other in the Round of 32, but instead they were both heading home early.

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Suh, a junior at USC, never led in his 1-up loss to Harrison Ott, while Cal's Morikawa lost to another Vanderbilt player, John Augenstein, in 19 holes.

Englishman Matthew Jordan is the fourth-ranked player in the world, but he didn’t make the 36-hole stroke-play cut.

The highest-ranked player remaining is Oklahoma State junior Viktor Hovland, who is ranked fifth. With his college coach, Alan Bratton, on the bag, Hovland beat his Cowboys teammate, Hayden Wood, 3 and 2, to reach the Round of 32.

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Fiery Augenstein outduels Morikawa at U.S. Amateur

By Ryan LavnerAugust 16, 2018, 12:55 am

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Around the Vanderbilt golf team John Augenstein’s nickname is “Flash,” and it’s easy to see why.

The swing loaded with speed.

The on-course charisma.

The big shot in the big moment.

The Commodores junior added another highlight to his growing collection Wednesday, when he defeated world No. 3 Collin Morikawa in 19 holes during a Round of 64 match at the U.S. Amateur.

Out of sorts early at Pebble Beach, Augenstein was 2 down to Morikawa after butchering the short seventh and then misplaying a shot around the green on 8.

Standing on the ninth tee, he turned to Vanderbilt assistant coach/caddie Gator Todd: "I need to play the best 10 holes of my life to beat Collin."

And did he?

“I don’t know,” he said later, smirking, “but I did enough.”

Augenstein won the ninth hole after Morikawa dumped his approach shot into the hazard, drained a 30-footer on 10 to square the match and then took his first lead when he rolled in a 10-footer on 14.

One down with three holes to go, Morikawa stuffed his approach into 16 while Augenstein, trying to play a perfect shot, misjudged the wind and left himself in a difficult position, short and right of the green. Augenstein appeared visibly frustrated once he found his ball, buried in the thick ryegrass short of the green. He told Todd that he didn’t think he’d be able to get inside of Morikawa’s shot about 6 feet away, but he dumped his pitch shot onto the front edge, rode the slope and trickled it into the cup for an unlikely birdie.

“Come on!” he yelled, high-fiving Todd and tossing his wedge at his bag.

“It was beautiful,” Todd said. “I’m not sure how he did that, but pretty cool that it went in.”  

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Morikawa answered by making birdie, then won the 17th with a par before both players halved the home hole with birdies.

On the first extra hole, Augenstein hit his approach to 15 feet while Morikawa left it short. Morikawa raced his first putt by 6 feet and then missed the comebacker to lose the match.

It may not have been the best 10-hole stretch of Augenstein’s career, but after that pep talk on 9 tee, he went 4 under to the house.

“He’s a fiery little dude,” Morikawa said of his 5-foot-8-inch opponent. “You don’t want to get him on the wrong side because you never know what’s going to happen. He’s not going to give shots away.”

The first-round match was a rematch of the Western Amateur quarterfinals two weeks ago, where Augenstein also won, that time by a 4-and-2 margin.

“It’s the most fun format and where I can be my true self – emotional and aggressive and beat people,” Augenstein said.

That’s what he did at the 2017 SECs, where he won the deciding points in both the semifinals and the finals. He starred again a few weeks later at the NCAA Championship, last season went 3-0 in SEC match play, and now has earned a reputation among his teammates as a primetime player.

“I’ve hit a lot of big shots and putts in my career,” said Augenstein, ranked 26th in the world after recently winning the Players Amateur. “I get locked in and focused, and there’s not a shot that I don’t think I can pull off. I’m not scared to fail.”

The comeback victory against Morikawa – a three-time winner last season at Cal and one of the best amateurs in the world – didn’t surprise Todd. He’s seen firsthand how explosive Augenstein can be on the course.

“He’s just fiery,” Todd said. “He does things under pressure that you’re not supposed to do. He’s just a special kid.”

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Fowler (oblique) withdraws from playoff opener

By Will GrayAugust 15, 2018, 8:44 pm

The injury that slowed Rickie Fowler at last week's PGA Championship will keep him out of the first event of the PGA Tour's postseason.

Fowler was reportedly hampered by an oblique injury at Bellerive Country Club, where he started the third round two shots off the lead but faded to a tie for 12th. He confirmed the injury Tuesday in an Instagram post, adding that an MRI revealed a partial tear to his right oblique muscle.

According to Fowler, the injury also affected him at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, where he tied for 17th. After receiving the test results, he opted to withdraw from The Northern Trust next week at Ridgewood Country Club in New Jersey.

"My team and I feel like it's best not to play next week in the Northern Trust," Fowler wrote. "I will be back healthy and competitive ASAP for the FedEx Cup and more than ready for the Ryder Cup!!!"

Fowler is one of eight players who earned automatic spots on the U.S. Ryder Cup team when the qualifying window closed last week. His next opportunity to tee it up would be at the 100-man Dell Technologies Championship, where Fowler won in 2015.

Fowler has 12 top-25 finishes in 18 starts, highlighted by runner-up finishes at both the OHL Classic at Mayakoba in the fall and at the Masters. He is currently 17th in the season-long points race, meaning that he's assured of starts in each of the first three playoff events regardless of performance and in good position to qualify for the 30-man Tour Championship for the fourth time in the last five years.