Spieth about to embark on quest for career slam

By Rex HoggardJuly 25, 2017, 1:00 pm

SOUTHPORT, England – Phil Mickelson knew it the moment his birdie putt fell into the hole to win the 2013 Open at Muirfield, just as Rory McIlroy was well aware of the historical path that had opened up to him when he won at Royal Liverpool a year later.

Only five men have won the career Grand Slam, the most exclusive of golf’s clubs reserved for the type of legacy that requires only a first name – Jack, Tiger, Gary, Gene and Ben.

Like Mickelson and McIlroy before him, Jordan Spieth didn’t shy away from the most intense of expectations when he walked off Royal Birkdale on Sunday after the most eventful of days.

He’d just endured a 3-over-through-four-holes start and a surreal episode at the 13th hole that included two drops, two rules officials and far too much drama, but Spieth had no problem breaking the code and letting his mind drift to next month’s PGA Championship and the historic possibilities.

Spieth’s victory on Sunday over Matt Kuchar at The Open secured the third leg of the career Grand Slam, a resume that now includes every major except the PGA.

Bring it on.

“It's a life goal of mine. It's a career goal,” he said. “Growing up playing golf, I just wanted to be able to play in major championships and compete with the best in the world, and things have happened very quickly.”

And that learning curve could be expedited next month at Quail Hollow, where Spieth will arrive with a chance to become the youngest to complete the career round-tripper, younger than Nicklaus, younger than Woods. Historic.

At 23 - he turns 24 on Thursday - Spieth would seem to be a lock to join the club eventually, but the student of golf is well aware there are no guarantees.

Mickelson and McIlroy are 0-fer in their attempts to complete the career slam, with Rory needing a Masters victory and Lefty still searching for that elusive U.S. Open title.

The Open: Full-field scores | Full coverage

Go deeper into the history books and the road ahead, however long it may be, loses a little more of its certainty. No player has ever completed the career slam with a PGA victory, with the late Arnold Palmer the most glaring example of those who tried and failed.

When Palmer won the 1961 Open Championship only the Wanamaker Trophy needed to be added to his collection, and yet in 34 attempts from ’61 until he retired the King was unable to get over the PGA hurdle. He finished runner-up at the PGA three times after ’61 and his career is by all accounts among the top three of all time, but that fourth major proved to be inexplicably elusive.

Tom Watson went 0-for-23 at the PGA after winning the 1982 U.S. Open to fall short of the career slam, and Sam Snead was 0-for-24 at the U.S. Open when he needed just the final leg.

“I don't think it's inevitable, no,” said Zach Johnson, who was waiting for Spieth when he completed his round on Sunday at Royal Birkdale. “That being said, he's got a better chance than most. Rory has the best chance or Phil. But those two obviously have the best chance. Rory probably has the best chance, if you go on odds and age. But I put nothing past Phil.”

Mickelson’s chances at the U.S. Open appear to be nearing an end. He skipped this year’s championship to attend his daughter’s high school graduation and at 47 years old he doesn’t exactly have time on his side, although the Thrill has defied convention his entire career.

At 28, McIlroy certainly isn’t overly concerned that he won’t be able to add a green jacket to his Grand Slam trophy case. He’s always played Augusta National well, having finished in the top 10 the last three years in his pursuit of the career slam.

But all things considered, it might be Spieth who has the best chance to crack the major ceiling first. In four starts at the PGA, Spieth is 2-for-4 in cuts made and finished runner-up in 2015 to Jason Day, and as his record proves he has the ability to perform on a variety of golf courses – from Augusta National to Chambers Bay to Royal Birkdale.

The next few years will be crucial. Pressure has a way of building in direct relation to missed opportunities.

When Ernie Els won the 2002 Open Championship his mind immediately drifted to winning the career slam. He’d already won the U.S. Open, twice, and had played well at Augusta National. With each near miss, however, things became more difficult.

“He could go really big. He can go up to the 14 mark, up there in majors. When you get on a roll like that guys kind of start knowing that you know how to win,” Els said on Sunday when asked about Spieth’s career slam chances. “You've seen some careers where, I mean myself in '95 I had a three-shot lead going to the [final round of the] PGA, couldn't get it done. '96 I missed out on another very narrow loss. And I kind of stalled. I only got four [majors]. But if you get the momentum going the other way, you can go win a boatload.”

Although his place in golf history, not to mention the World Golf Hall of Fame, appears written in stone and silver at this point, Spieth’s legacy is now directly tied to his ability to do what Palmer and Watson couldn’t – win a PGA Championship.

The good news is he won’t have long to wait before he gets his first chance.

Getty Images

Minjee Lee co-leads Walmart NW Arkansas Championship

By Associated PressJune 24, 2018, 12:25 am

ROGERS, Ark. - Minjee Lee wasn't all that concerned when she missed her first cut of the year this month at the ShopRite LPGA Classic.

The ninth-ranked Australian has certainly looked at ease and back in form at Pinnacle Country Club in her first event since then.

Lee and Japan's Nasa Hataoka each shot 6-under 65 on Saturday to share the second-round lead in the NW Arkansas Championship 13-under 129. Lee is chasing her fifth victory since turning pro three years ago. It's also an opportunity to put any lingering frustration over that missed cut two weeks ago behind her for good.

''I didn't particularly hit it bad, even though I missed the cut at ShopRite, I just didn't really hole any putts,'' Lee said. ''I'd been hitting it pretty solid going into that tournament and even into this tournament, too. Just to see a couple putts roll in has been nice.''

The 22-year-old Lee needed only 24 putts during her opening 64 on Friday, helping her to match the low round of her career. Despite needing 28 putts Saturday, she still briefly took the outright lead after reaching as low as 14 under after a birdie on the par-5 seventh.

Full-field scores from the Walmart Arkansas Championship

Lee missed the green on the par-4 ninth soon thereafter to lead to her only bogey of the day and a tie with the 19-year-old Hataoka, who is in pursuit of her first career win.

Hataoka birdied six of eight holes midway through her bogey-free round on Saturday. It was yet another stellar performance from the Japanese teenager, who has finished in the top 10 in four of her last five tournaments and will be a part of Sunday's final pairing.

''I try to make birdies and try to be under par, that's really the key for me to get a top ten,'' Hataoka said. ''Golf is just trying to be in the top 10 every single week, so that's the key.''

Third-ranked Lexi Thompson matched the low round of the day with a 64 to get to 11 under. She hit 17 of 18 fairways and shot a 5-under 30 on her opening nine, The American is in search of her first win since September in the Indy Women in Tech Championship.

Ariya Jutanugarn and Celine Boutier were 10 under.

First-round leader Gaby Lopez followed her opening 63 with a 75 to drop to 4 under. Fellow former Arkansas star Stacy Lewis also was 4 under after a 72.

Getty Images

Henley will try to put heat on Casey in final round

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 11:55 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While it will be a tall task for anyone to catch Paul Casey at the Travelers Championship, the man who will start the round most within reach of the Englishman is Russell Henley.

Henley was in the penultimate group at TPC River Highlands on Saturday, but he’ll now anchor things during the final round as he looks to overcome a four-shot deficit behind Casey. After a 3-under 67, Henley sits at 12 under through 54 holes and one shot clear of the three players tied for third.

Henley closed his third round with a run of five straight pars, then became the beneficiary of a pair of late bogeys from Brian Harman that left Henley alone in second place.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“Could have made a couple more putts, but to end with two up-and-downs like that was nice,” Henley said. “I felt a little bit weird over the shots coming in, put me in some bad spots. But it was nice to have the short game to back me up.”

Henley has won three times on Tour, most recently at the 2017 Houston Open, and he cracked the top 25 at both the Masters and U.S. Open. But with Casey riding a wave of confidence and coming off an 8-under 62 that marked the best round of the week, he knows he’ll have his work cut out for him in order to nab trophy No. 4.

“I think I can shoot a low number on this course. You’ve got to make the putts,” Henley said. “I’m definitely hitting it well enough, and if I can get a couple putts to fall, that would be good. But I can’t control what he’s doing. I can just try to keep playing solid.”

Getty Images

Back from back injury, Casey eyeing another win

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 11:36 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Given his four-shot cushion at the Travelers Championship and his recent victory at the Valspar Championship, it’s easy to forget that Paul Casey hit the disabled list in between.

Casey had to withdraw from The Players Championship because of a bad back, becoming the only player in the top 50 in the world rankings to miss the PGA Tour’s flagship event. He flew back to England to get treatment, and Casey admitted that his T-20 finish at last month’s BMW PGA Championship came while he was still on the mend.

“I wasn’t 100 percent fit with the back injury, which was L-4, L-5, S-1 (vertebrae) all out of place,” Casey said. “Big inflammation, nerve pain down the leg and up the back. I didn’t know what was going on.”

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Thanks in large part to a combination of MRIs, back adjustments and anti-inflammatories, Casey finally turned the corner. His T-16 finish at last week’s U.S. Open was the first event for which he felt fully healthy since before the Players, and he’s on the cusp of a second title since March after successfully battling through the injury.

“We thought we were fixing it, but we weren’t. We were kind of hitting the effects rather than the cause,” Casey said. “Eventually we figured out the cause, which was structural.”

Casey started the third round at TPC River Highlands two shots off the lead, but he’s now four clear of Russell Henley after firing an 8-under 62 that marked the low round of the week.

Getty Images

Bubba thinks he'll need a Sunday 60 to scare Casey

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 11:15 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Perhaps moreso than at most PGA Tour venues, a low score is never really out of reach at TPC River Highlands. Positioned as a welcome change of pace after the U.S. Open, the Travelers Championship offers a lush layout that often pushes the balance much closer to reward than risk.

This is where Jim Furyk shot a 58 on the par-70 layout two years ago – and he didn’t even win that week. So even though Paul Casey enters the final round with a commanding four-shot lead, there’s still plenty of hope for the chase pack that something special could be in store.

Count Bubba Watson among the group who still believe the title is up for grabs – even if it might require a Herculean effort, even by his standards.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Watson has won the Travelers twice, including in a 2015 playoff over Casey. But starting the final round in a large tie for sixth at 10 under, six shots behind Casey, he estimates that he’ll need to flirt with golf’s magic number to give the Englishman something to worry about.

“My 7 under yesterday, I need to do better than that. I’m going to have to get to like 10 [under],” Watson said. “The only beauty is, getting out in front, you have a chance to put a number up and maybe scare them. But to scare them, you’re going to have to shoot 10 under at worst, where I’m at anyway.”

Watson started the third round three shots off the lead, and he made an early move with birdies on Nos. 1 and 2 en route to an outward 32. The southpaw couldn’t sustain that momentum, as bogeys on Nos. 16 and 17 turned a potential 65 into a relatively disappointing 67.

“Bad decision on the par-3, and then a very tough tee shot for me on 17, and it just creeped into the bunker,” Watson said. “Just, that’s golf. You have mistakes every once in a while.”