Steady Koepka is king of the Hills

By Rex HoggardJune 19, 2017, 2:23 am

ERIN, Wis. – Luckily for the 117th U.S. Open, headlines don’t always tell the complete story.

In order, a balloon tumbled from the sky in a fiery ball on Thursday, then the next day officials announced an E. coli scare on property. It all kind of made one pine for the days when the most frightening thing at the championship was deep rough and a USGA official waiting for you with a rulebook on the 12th tee.

But for all the distractions at Erin Chills, all the social media scuffling over supercharged fescue and a golf course that could be stretched to 18 miles, it was a fresh wind from the northwest and the inspired play of Brooks Koepka on Sunday that turned what could have been a week to forget into something worth remembering.

After four days of wild lead changes and frenzied congestion, Koepka converted the clutch putts, took advantage of a rare U.S. Open venue with four par 5s and limited his misses, not posting a single score worse than bogey at what turned out to be an MIA Open for the missing marquee.

A week that began with no Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson, marking the first time since 1994 at least one of the game’s leading men wasn’t in the field at a major, begat a weekend without world Nos. 1, 2 and 3 – Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day, respectively – for the first time at a major.

While those titans may have been missed, it turns out they simply missed Koepka’s coronation, the completion of his transition from a calm and confident player with plenty of potential to a bona fide star who didn’t blink when the game’s most demanding test finally arrived on Day 4.

Even when Hideki Matsuyama made the long walk up the hill to the scoring area with the clubhouse lead at 12 under Koepka kept up appearances, which in his case would best be described as intense indifference. Or maybe aloof aplomb would be a better way to sum up the 27-year-old’s unique persona.

U.S. Open: Scores | Live blog: Day 4 | Full coverage

With Matsuyama setting the mark, Koepka answered by rolling in 32 feet of birdie putts at the 14th, 15th and 16th holes to move four clear of the field. He cruised home from there to a record-tying total in relation to par at 16 under and his first major title.

“This week I honestly don’t think I ever got nervous, I just stayed in the moment,” Koepka said with a signature shrug.

The Erin Hills Open may have been an extreme break from the norm, with 31 players finishing under par for the week, but to casual observers the final outcome probably looked vaguely familiar to last year’s event which was won by Dustin Johnson, a close friend of Koepka’s and something of his equal in the flat-liner department.

Johnson, who won last year with a similarly commanding performance at Oakmont, called Koepka on the eve of the final round to offer support and the two spent time together earlier this week playing practice rounds and doing whatever world-class athletes do when they aren’t winning.

“He’s always pretty flat line, I think that’s why people compare him to DJ and it’s why they get along so well. They are similar people, nothing fazes them and they’re pretty chilled out,” said Koepka’s swing coach, Claude Harmon III.

Beyond that calm exterior and limitless power, however, there’s a subtle if not substantial difference between Koepka and Johnson. Unlike the world No. 1, Koepka didn’t arrive on the PGA Tour with untold fanfare or enjoy immediate and unqualified success.

Instead, he forged a much different path, starting out on the European Challenge Tour, the Continent’s version of Triple A golf, before moving onto the European Tour.

He played tournaments in far-flung places like Kazakhstan and had to have extra pages put into his passport at one point because of his extensive travels. But most importantly he learned.

“He’s slept in his car, he’s done everything on the way up. He’s slept in a B&B with four of us and struggled along the way and that’s helped him appreciate where he is,” said Koepka’s caddie Ricky Elliott.

So when he began this year by missing four of his first six cuts, he didn’t panic, he didn’t try to find new answers or reinvent a wheel that has always run at an extremely high speed.

“It’s the Mike Tyson thing. It had been easy up until the beginning of this year for Brooks. But as Mike Tyson said, ‘Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.’ All of a sudden golf’s not easy,” Harmon said. “He missed a bunch of cuts and I think it spurred him on. He bounced back and recovered from that. It was massive.”

Koepka’s victory was equally massive for a championship that seemed to lack an identity, initially as a result of the perceived missing star power and then as scoring reached record levels.

Rickie Fowler initially filled the star void, taking the first-round lead with a 65 and starting the final round just two strokes back, but he never managed to close the gap and finished with an even-par 72 to tie for fifth.

Brian Harman emerged on the weekend as a potential breakout player and for 63 holes a steady putter kept him in contention. But after crucial par putts at the sixth and ninth holes to keep pace with Koepka, Harman’s chances slowly devolved into a “dogs chasing cars” deal, with missed par attempts at the 12th and 13th holes. After going 25 holes without a bogey, he never recovered and tied for second place at 12 under par.

“If you would have told me I’d shoot 12 under at the U.S. Open and not win I’d have taken the bet for sure,” said Harman, who had made the cut in just two of his previous seven major starts.

What the leaderboard may have lacked in marquee, it made up for in variety. Four players shared the lead at the turn on Friday and that number ballooned to seven players midway through Round 3 before separation Sunday finally arrived.

The 117th edition may not have been the showstopper officials had been hoping for, but after taking a few shots to the chin in recent years the USGA’s experiment at Erin Hills was widely considered a success, qualified or otherwise.

“I think they did a fantastic job,” said Jordan Spieth, one of the few high-profile players to even make it to the weekend. “Chambers [Bay] was tough with the greens, and then last year had a tough Sunday. And I thought that the USGA did a phenomenal job this week of allowing the golf course to be what it is and play the way it's supposed to play. Not trying to do anything to hold any kind of standard. Instead, create an environment where if you play well, you can score, and if you don't, then it can go the other way.”

In many minds the Erin Hills Open was likely saved by Sunday’s breeze. After three days of record scoring that included Justin Thomas’ 9-under 63 – the lowest score in relation to par ever at the U.S. Open, which prompted the previous record holder Johnny Miller to compare the event with the Milwaukee Open – balance and a bite was returned to the golf universe on Day 4.

Sunday’s winds finally put the fear back in the golf, where it should be at the U.S. Open, and as is always the case the most fearless player emerged.

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Match-by-match: WGC-Dell Technologies, Sweet 16

By Golf Channel DigitalMarch 24, 2018, 5:40 pm

Here is how things played out in the Round of 16 on Saturday at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. The week began with 64 players taking on Austin Country Club,but the field is dwindling. Click here for Day 3 match results:

Match 97: Bubba Watson (35) def. Brian Harman (18), 2 and 1. Watson was 1 down going to the eighth hole, but he won four of the next five holes to turn around this battle of lefties. A 12-foot putt for eagle at the 12th dropped, giving him a 3 up lead coming home. It was Watson’s second eagle of the day. He looks as if he’s still riding the confidence from that Genesis Open victory last month. Watson will advance to play Kiradech Aphibarnrat in the quarterfinals.

Match 98: Kiradech Aphibarnrat (28) def. Charles Howell III (59), 1 up. Aphibarnrat won in a late comeback, winning the final two holes. He holed a 9-foot putt for birdie at the 17th to square the match and won with an 8-foot birdie at the last. He had not led all day, not until that last birdie putt dropped. The 28-year-old Thai improved to 4-0 on this world stage after sweeping his group in the round-robin play. A four-time European Tour winner, Aphibarnrat is looking for his first PGA Tour victory. He will meet Bubba Watson in the quarterfinals.

Match 99: Kyle Stanley (45) def. Sergio Garcia (7), 3 and 1. Stanley birdied the eighth, ninth and 10th holes to go 3 up, and then he held off Garcia’s run at him, eliminating the world No. 10 with birdies at the 16th and 17th holes. With the victory, Stanley has a chance at a nice Texas two-step, a chance to eliminate the two highest ranked players left in the field, the only players left among the top 10 in the world ranking. But, there’s hard work to do in the quarterfinals, where Stanley will meet world No. 2 Justin Thomas.

Match 100: Justin Thomas (2) def. Si Woo Kim (50), 6 and 5. Thomas remains on fire in this format, steamrolling Kim a day after completing a round-robin sweep of his group by blowing away Francesco Molinari, 7 and 5. The Kim match felt like it was over shortly after it started, with Thomas making the turn 5 up. Thomas will advance to play Kyle Stanley in the quarterfinals.

Match 101: Cameron Smith (46) def. Tyrell Hatton (12), 2 and 1. Smith found himself behind early, falling 2 down after Hatton opened with back-to-back birdies, but Smith quickly rallied to win one of the best matches of the day. He birdied four of the next five holes to go 1 up. Hatton lost despite making seven birdies on the round. He lost despite making birdies at the 15th, 16th and 17th holes to the red-hot Smith, who made eight birdies. Smith will meet Alex Noren in the quarterfinals.

Match 102: Alex Noren (13) def. Patrick Reed (19), 5 and 3. In this Fire vs. Ice match, Ice won, with Noren making easy work of Reed. Really, though, Reed never got a flame going, and Noren wasn’t going to help him the way Jordan Spieth did a day before. Reed was 2-over on his card before finally making his first and only birdie of the day at the 13th. Somewhere, European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn must have been smiling, watching Noren easily take down the formidable American match-play dynamo. Noren will meet Cameron Smith in the quarterfinals.

Match 103: Ian Poulter (58) def. Louis Oosthuizen (25), 2 and 1. Poulter’s match-play mojo is going strong again, with the Englishman summoning the intensity that has made him so formidable in the Ryder Cup over the years. He was on fire Saturday, making eight birdies over the first 15 holes, if you count the concession he received hitting a wedge to 18 inches at the 13th hole. Poulter put a special putter in the bag this week, using the same flat stick that helped him lead the Euros to their historic comeback victory against the Americans at Medinah in 2012. Though Oosthuizen made four birdies in a six-hole stretch on the back nine, he still couldn’t make it close. Poulter will meet Kevin Kisner in the quarterfinals.

Match 104: Kevin Kisner (32) def. Matt Kuchar (16), 1 up. Kuchar applied all kinds of pressure on Kisner on the back nine, but he couldn’t get Kisner to fold in the best match of the day. Kuchar was 2 down with four to go but managed to pull all square going to the last. After missing a 15-footer for birdie at the 18th, Kuchar watched Kisner sink a 12-footer for his birdie to win. Kisner will meet Ian Poulter in the quarterfinals.

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JT advances to quarters, closing in on No. 1 ranking

By Rex HoggardMarch 24, 2018, 5:40 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Justin Thomas continued his impressive run at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play and finds himself another step closer to overtaking Dustin Johnson in the World Golf Ranking.

Thomas rolled past Si Woo Kim, 6 and 5, in the first knockout stage and will face Kyle Stanley in the Elite Eight. He must advance to Sunday’s championship match to overtake Johnson as the new world No. 1.

“It wasn't anything crazy or special. Just played solid golf tee to green. And it was forcing him to make a lot of putts,” said Thomas, who has played 61 holes this week, won 24, lost six and hasn’t trailed in four matches.

Stanley, who needed a playoff victory over Paul Casey on Friday to advance to the weekend, defeated Sergio Garcia, 3 and 1.

Bubba Watson also continued his solid play, rallying from an early deficit to beat Brian Harman, 2 and 1. He will play Kiradech Aphibarnrat, who defeated Charles Howell III, closing with back-to-back birdies for a 1-up victory.

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Full bracket | Scoring | Group standings

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But as impressive as Thomas has been, Sweden’s Alex Noren has quietly continued to impress, going undefeated in pool play and closing out Patrick Reed on the 15th hole for a 5-and-3 victory.

“He's such a tough competitor,” said Noren, who will face Australian Cameron Smith in the quarterfinals. “I managed to hole a few birdie putts. When we both had good chances, he just missed and I managed to make those.”

Former Match Play champion Ian Poulter also advanced with a 2-and-1 victory over Louis Oosthuizen. He will play Kevin Kisner, who converted a 10-foot putt at the 18th hole to defeat Matt Kuchar, 1 up.

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Winning on Kerr's mind this week and beyond

By Randall MellMarch 24, 2018, 2:11 am

Cristie Kerr moved into position Friday to do more than win the 21st LPGA title of her career.

She moved into position to claim an LPGA Hall of Fame point this week.

Yes, winning is foremost on her mind at the Kia Classic, where she took the lead with an 8-under-par 64 in the second round, she’s on a larger quest, too.

After turning 40 last fall, Kerr was asked what her goals are.

“The Hall of Fame is attainable, if I stick with it,” she said.

Kerr is five shots ahead of Lizette Salas (67), In-Kyung Kim (69), Hee Young Park (70) and Caroline Hedwall (70).

It’s a good time for Kerr to get on a hot streak, with the year’s first major championship, the ANA Inspiration, next week. She has long been one of the best putters in the women’s game, but her ball-striking is impressive this week. She hit 17 greens in regulation Thursday, and she hit 16 on Friday.

“I like winning,” Kerr said. “I like challenging myself. Definitely doesn't get any easier as you get older, with the travel and recovery time. I got up this morning and I'm like, `Man, why does my hamstring hurt?’ From working around this hilly golf course.”

Kerr acknowledged Friday that her body is more vulnerable to time’s realities, but her mind isn’t.

Full-field scores from the Kia Classic

“The golf ball doesn't know an age,” Kerr said. “I've always said that. As long as I stay hungry, going to just keep playing.”

Kerr won two weeks after her 40th birthday last fall, boosting her LPGA Hall of Fame point total to 22. She is five points short of eligibility for induction. A player earns one point for an LPGA victory and two points for a major championship title. So there’s a lot of Hall of Fame ground to gain this week and next.

It’s a long-term goal that motivates Kerr to take care of her body.

“I don't think the golf changes,” Kerr said. “I think, physically, it gets harder as you get older. Like I said, I've got tape on my hamstring. I strained it, just a little bit yesterday, walking around this golf course. It's tough as you get older, just being fresh and rested. I put more focus into that as I've gotten older. I still practice, but off the course I try to get more rest.”

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Big names chasing Kerr into the weekend at Kia Classic

By Associated PressMarch 24, 2018, 1:55 am

CARLSBAD, Calif. - Cristie Kerr shot an 8-under 64 on Friday in the Kia Classic to take a five-stroke lead into the weekend.

The 40-year-old Kerr had eight birdies in her second straight bogey-free round to reach 13-under 131 at rain-softened Aviara.

''I like winning. I like challenging myself,'' Kerr said. ''Definitely doesn't get any easier as you get older with the travel and recovery time. I got up this morning and I'm like, 'Man, why does my hamstring hurt?' From working around this hilly golf course. The golf ball doesn't know an age. I've always said that. As long as I stay hungry, going to just keep playing.''

She has 20 LPGA victories, winning at Aviara in 2015. She won twice last year and helped the U.S. beat Europe in her ninth Solheim Cup appearance.

''It's tough as you get older just being fresh and rested,'' Kerr said. ''I put more focus into that as I've gotten older. I still practice, but off the course I try to get more rest.''

Lizette Salas, In-Kyung Kim, Hee Young Park and Caroline Hedwall were tied for second. Salas shot 67, Kim 69, and Park and Hedwall 70.

''I really like this golf course. I really like the environment,'' said Salas, the former University of Southern California player from Azusa. ''My family gets to come out. So much confidence at the beginning of the week, and definitely showed the first two days.

Jeong Eun Lee was 7 under after a 69, and defending ANA champion So Yeon Ryu had a 70 to get to 6 under.

Full-field scores from the Kia Classic

Ariya Jutanugarn (72), Brooke Henderson (70) and 2016 winner Lydia Ko (71) were 5 under. Shanshan Feng (68) was another stroke back, and Singapore winner Michelle Wie (72) was 1 under.

Lexi Thompson was 2 over after a 74, making the cut on the number in the final event before the major ANA Inspiration next week at Mission Hills.

Kerr opened with birdies on the par-5 10th and par-3 11th, added birdies on the par-4 16th, 18th and second, and ran off three in a row on the par-3 sixth, par-4 seventh and par-5 eighth.

''I don't think you can fall asleep on one shot,'' Kerr said. ''It's a really good golf course. I think I play better on courses that demand the focus, so I think that's why I've played well here in the past. ... I'm trying not to put limits on myself right now. I've got some good things going on with my swing.''

She has long been one best putters and green-readers in the world.

''I can see the subtleties that a lot of people can't,'' Kerr said. ''It's a gift from God being able to do that. I've always had that, so I'm lucky.''

Laura Davies withdrew after an opening 82. The 54-year-old Davies tied for second last week in the Founders Cup in Phoenix, playing through painful left Achilles and calf problems.