USGA learned lesson from 2010 U.S. Am at Chambers

By Rex HoggardJune 15, 2015, 6:00 pm

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” - H.P. Lovecraft, American author 

Not since the PGA Tour started measuring success with points in lieu of prize money has there been this level of uncertainty among the game’s best players.

Chambers Bay, site of this week’s U.S. Open, is a championship conundrum wrapped in a rolling riddle for most, and what little practical information exists does little to ease anxieties.

In the run-up to this week’s event, the void of uncertainty has been filled with urban-legend stuff like the tale of Scott Langley and Patrick Reed at the 2010 U.S. Amateur that was held at the Pacific Northwest layout.

The story goes that both players made such a mess of Chambers Bay’s opening hole in the second round of match play that when they finally reached the green they had to consult with the walking scorer because neither knew how many swings he had made.

“He made a 7 and I made an 8 and I think we just looked at each other and kind of laughed. ‘Let’s start on No. 2. You’re 1 up,’” recalled Langley, who would win that match in 19 holes.

“It can happen there because there’s fescue and tricky greens and big runoffs. It’s that type of place. You have to keep the ball in play and if you get out of place you have to take your medicine immediately.”

Although a few Tour types have made the trip to Chambers Bay with mixed reviews, what real-world data that does exist about the Robert Trent Jones Jr. design hard on the shores of Puget Sound comes almost entirely from the ’10 U.S. Amateur, which U.S. Golf Association officials used as a dress rehearsal for this week’s championship.

The lessons learned from 2010 will, in theory, keep officials from making the same mistakes this week when the stakes and scrutiny are much higher, and it seems the USGA has made the most of the setup mulligan.

“There needed to be changes made and they made the changes,” said Brooks Koepka, who failed to advance out of stroke-play qualifying at the 2010 Amateur. “I thought the first hole was unfair. You could hit just on the right side of the green and you could end up 80 yards left. They needed to flatten that out which they did ... The seventh green was unfair. The problem is they let the golf course get too firm and it got out of hand.”

Although there have been numerous tweaks to the layout since the ’10 Amateur, the biggest lesson USGA executive director Mike Davis learned from that championship is that there was nothing wrong with Chambers Bay that copious amounts of water couldn’t fix.

The two rounds of stroke-play qualifying were marred by an overly crispy golf course that fell well short of the USGA’s intended purpose of identifying the best players.

Consider that Koepka – now a Tour winner who last year played his way onto U.S. Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson’s short list for a potential pick – failed to qualify for the match-play portion of the championship in 2010 after carding a second-round 81 on Chambers Bay.

The roll call of Chambers Bay victims reads like a “who’s who” of the game’s best young players. Masters champion Jordan Spieth and Tour rookie Daniel Berger signed for 83s in stroke-play qualifying while two-time Tour winner Russell Henley was one shot better.

To put those numbers in context, the scoring average for Chambers Bay on Day 1 of qualifying was 79.87, which made Hudson Swafford’s opening 71 on the links-like layout much more than simply a solid round.

“Best ball-striking round I’ve ever had in my life,” Swafford said. “I’m not kidding. I’m dead serious. It was firm and fast. It’s a crazy golf course. I like the scenery and the link style, it has potential to be pretty good but there was a little goofiness to it.”

Although officials dialed the course back for the match-play rounds, the sting of those first two days still lingers.

“I didn’t like it,” said John Peterson, who managed a 73 at Chambers Bay in qualifying. “I didn’t like how firm it was when they set it up for the U.S. Amateur. For stroke play it was obnoxious.

“I think they learned a lot from that. We were kind of the guinea pigs for the USGA. I’m sure they will set it up fine, but it was not good for the first two rounds of stroke play.”

While opinions have varied from the dismissive (Ryan Palmer) to the delighted (Phil Mickelson) among those who have made scouting trips to Chambers Bay, creativity and a competitive acceptance will likely be the two most important clubs in players’ bags this week.

Holes like the par-3 third, for example, will need to be approached in a more deliberate way, with players explaining that any tee shot at the pin is doomed to find a bunker, or worse, while a shot played 10 yards right of the right edge of the green will likely funnel to within birdie range.

“It’s basically the opposite of Pinehurst last year in terms of all the greens at Pinehurst are a bowl flipped upside down. At Chambers Bay the majority of the greens are actual bowls so you have tons of options when it comes to approach shots,” Langley said. “Some guys would call that goofy; I would call it fun. It’s different.”

“Different” seems to be a common theme used to describe Chambers Bay, which is not exactly what players look for in major championship venues and at least partially explains the heightened level of anxiety going into the year’s second Grand Slam gathering.

Not coincidentally, those who accepted the course’s unique ways and embraced an alternative game were also the players who enjoyed the most success at the 2010 U.S. Amateur.

“It's just different,” Reed explained. “I can see how people are going to have mixed reviews on whether they like it or don't like it but I seemed to play pretty well there when I played in the Am.”

Put another way, it’s not the unknown that players should fear at Chambers Bay so much as it is a reluctance to embrace a different kind of U.S. Open.

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After Further Review: Spieth needs a break

By Golf Channel DigitalJune 25, 2018, 1:11 am

Each week, takes a look back at the week in golf. Here's what's weighing on our writers' minds.

On Jordan Spieth's much-needed break ...

Jordan Spieth is heading for a break, and that’s probably a good thing.

Spieth just wrapped a run of six events in seven weeks that featured largely underwhelming results. A third-place finish at the Masters that stemmed from a nearly-historic final round deflects attention away from the fact that Spieth has yet to enter a final round this year less than six shots off the lead.

A return to his home state didn’t work, nor did a fight against par at Shinnecock or a title defense outside Hartford where everything went so well a year ago. His putting woes appear to have bottomed out, as Spieth finished 21st in putting at Travelers, but now the alignment issue that plagued his putting appears to have bled into other parts of his game.

So heading into another title defense next month at Carnoustie, Spieth plans to take some time off and re-evaluate. Given how fast things turned around last summer, that might prove to be just what he needs. - Will Gray

On the difference between this week and last week ...

There wasn’t a single outraged tweet, not a lone voice of descent on social media following Bubba Watson’s victory at the Travelers Championship, a 17-under par masterpiece that included a closing loop of 30.

Nobody declared that golf was broken, no one proclaimed the royal and ancient game a victim of technology and the age of uber athletes. The only response was appreciation for what Watson, a bomber in the truest form, was able to accomplish.

At 6,840 yards, TPC River Highlands was built for fun, not speed. Without wild weather or ill-advised hole locations and greens baked to extinction, this is what the best players in the game do, and yet no one seemed outraged. Weird. - Rex Hoggard

On the emergence of another LPGA phenom ...

Add another young star to the favorites list heading to the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Kemper Lakes outside Chicago next week.

Nasa Hataoka, the 19-year-old Japanese standout who needed her rookie season last year to acclimate to the LPGA, broke through for her first LPGA title Sunday at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

This wasn’t a surprise to LPGA followers. Hataoka won the Japan Women’s Open when she was 17, the first amateur to win a major on the Japan LPGA Tour, and she has been trending up this year.

Her tie for 10th at the U.S. Women’s Open three weeks ago was her fourth consecutive top-10 finish. She won going away in Arkansas, beating a deep field that included the top nine in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings. She outplayed world No. 2 Ariya Jutanugarn and No. 3 Lexi Thompson on Sunday. - Randall Mell

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Bubba waiting for Furyk's text about Ryder Cup

By Will GrayJune 25, 2018, 12:39 am

CROMWELL, Conn. – After winning his third PGA Tour title in the span of five months, Bubba Watson is now waiting by his phone.

Watson’s victory at the Travelers Championship, his third at TPC River Highlands since 2010, accompanies recent victories at both the Genesis Open and WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play from earlier this year. It also moved the southpaw from No. 7 to No. 5 in the latest U.S. Ryder Cup standings, with the top eight after the PGA Championship qualifying automatically.

After serving as an assistant captain at Hazeltine despite ranking No. 7 in the world at the time, Watson made it clear that he hopes to have removed any doubt about returning to the role of player when the biennial matches head to Paris this fall.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“It still says in my phone that (U.S. captain) Jim (Furyk) hasn’t texted me yet. So I’d really like for him to say I’m going to pick you no matter what,” Watson said. “The motivation is I’ve never won a Ryder Cup, so making the Ryder Cup team and trying to win a Ryder Cup as a player would be another tournament victory to me. It would be a major championship to me just because I’ve never done it, been a part of it.”

Watson turns 40 in November, and while he reiterated that his playing career might not extend too far into the future as he looks to spend more time at home with son Caleb and daughter Dakota, he’s also hoping to make an Olympic return in Tokyo in 2020 after representing the U.S. in Rio two years ago.

“Talking about the Olympics coming up, that’s motivating me,” he said. “It was the best experience of my life to watch all the other events, and then the golf tournament got in the way. I’d love to do it again. I’d love to watch all the events and then have to play golf as well.”

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Casey comes up short (again) to Bubba at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 25, 2018, 12:07 am

CROMWELL, Conn. – Staked to a four-shot lead entering the final round of the Travelers Championship, Paul Casey watched his opening tee shot bounce off a wooden wall and back into the middle of the fairway, then rolled in a 21-foot birdie putt off the fringe.

At the time, it appeared to be a not-so-subtle indicator that Casey was finally going to get his hands on a trophy that has barely eluded him in the past. Instead it turned out to be the lone highlight of a miserable round that left the Englishman behind only Bubba Watson at TPC River Highlands for the second time in the last four years.

Casey shot the low round of the tournament with a third-round 62 that distanced him from the field, but that opening birdie turned out to be his only one of the day as he stalled out and ultimately finished three shots behind Watson, to whom he lost here in a playoff in 2015.

Casey’s score was 10 shots worse than Saturday, as a 2-over 72 beat only five people among the 73 others to play the final round.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“I mean, I fought as hard as I could, which I’m proud of,” Casey said. “Not many times you put me on a golf course and I only make one birdie. I don’t know. I’d be frustrated with that in last week’s event, but it is what it is.”

Casey led by as many as five after his opening birdie, but he needed to make a 28-foot par save on No. 10 simply to maintain a one-shot edge over a hard-charging Watson. The two men were tied as Casey headed to the 16th tee, but his bogeys on Nos. 16 and 17 combined with a closing birdie from Watson meant the tournament was out of reach before Casey even reached the final tee.

Casey explained that a “bad night of sleep” led to some neck pain that affected his warm-up session but didn’t impact the actual round.

“Just frustrating I didn’t have more,” he said. “Didn’t have a comfortable swing to go out there and do something with.”

Casey won earlier this year at the Valspar Championship to end a PGA Tour victory drought that dated back to 2009, but after being denied a second victory in short succession when he appeared to have one hand on the trophy, he hopes to turn frustration into further success before turning the page to 2019.

“I’m probably even more fired up than I was post-Tampa to get another victory. This is only going to be more fuel,” Casey said. “I’ve got 12 events or something the rest of the year. So ask me again in November, and if I don’t have another victory, then I will be disappointed. This is merely kind of posturing for what could be a very good climax.”

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Bubba thrives in his comfort zone

By Will GrayJune 25, 2018, 12:02 am

CROMWELL, Conn. – The 1:20 p.m. pairing Sunday at TPC River Highlands spanned the spectrum on the PGA Tour. In one corner stood science. Bryson DeChambeau, whose quantitative approach to golf seemingly knows no bounds, was looking to add another victory after winning a playoff earlier this month at Jack’s Place.

On the other side was art.

Bubba Watson doesn’t float golf balls in Epsom salt to identify minor imperfections. He doesn’t break out a compass to find the slightest errors in the Tour-supplied pin sheet. Even when he texts caddie Ted Scott, he prefers to use voice text rather than rely on his admittedly sub-optimal spelling.

But strolling along one of his favorite landscapes, Bubba the artist came out on top. Again.

Watson is in the midst of a resurgent season, one that already included a third victory at one of his favorite haunts, Riviera Country Club. It featured a decisive run through the bracket at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, and a return to the leaderboards at Augusta National where he fell short of a third green jacket.

It only makes sense, then, that he’d build upon that burgeoning momentum at the Travelers Championship, where he earned his first PGA Tour victory in 2010 and Sunday joined Billy Casper as the tournament’s only three-time champ with a final-round 63 to catch and pass Paul Casey.

This is a place where Watson can bomb drives by feel and carve short irons at will, and one where he officially put his stamp on the best season to date on Tour.

“His hand-eye coordination is by far one of the best I’ve ever seen,” DeChambeau said. “You’ve got me who was just struggling off the tee, and he’s just swiping shots down there. It was cool to watch. I wish I could do that. I probably could do that, but I just don’t feel like I’d be as consistent as he is.”

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Consistency wasn’t an apt descriptor a year ago, as Watson went from two-time major champ to completely off the radar. His world ranking, which began last year at No. 10 and is now back up to No. 13 after he became the first three-time winner this season, fell as far as 117th before his win at Riviera in February.

Watson attributes much of the turnaround to a change in health. Never really one to tip the scales, he lost 25 pounds in a three-month span last year while battling an undisclosed health concern. After putting some of the weight back on, he’s now able to focus more of his time and energy on fine-tuning one of the Tour’s most distinctive approaches.

“Anytime any of these guys kind of get comfortable with just being them, and golf is secondary in a sense, it helps them reach their potential,” said Scott. “I think the hype and the pressure can sometimes put things out of sort. And right now he’s just very comfortable with who he is as a person, and I think in his life. It helps him relax on the golf course.”

What Watson doesn’t prefer to mention is the equipment change he made that serves as a not-so-subtle line of demarcation. The southpaw turned heads at the end of 2016 when he agreed to play a colored Volvik ball on Tour during the 2017 season, only to watch his results fall off a cliff. A return to the Titleist ball he previously used has coincided with some of the best results of his 12-year career.

“I don’t think it has had any (role) in my success,” Watson said. “My clubs weren’t going the distance that I used to. I couldn’t shape it the way I want to. Luckily for me, I know the problem, and the problem was with health and not all these other things.”

Regardless of the true source of his turnaround, Watson is back to doing what he does best. That includes carving up the handful of venues that most fit his unique eye, be they lined by thick kikuyu rough outside Los Angeles or dotted with menacing water hazards outside Hartford.

The artistic touch was on full display with his final swing of the day. Facing exactly 71 yards to a pin tucked barely over the edge of a yawning bunker on No. 18, Watson laid the face open on his 63-degree wedge and hit a cut shot that spun and checked to inside 3 feet.

“Teddy put his arm around me, like, ‘That was an amazing shot,’” Watson said. “He’s seen a lot of shots, he’s been out here for many years. So for him to realize it, and other players to text me and realize it, it was special.”

While it seemed at the time like a shot that gave Watson a glimmer of hope in his pursuit of Casey, it ultimately turned out to be the final highlight of a three-shot victory. It’s the type of shot that few, if any, of his peers can visualize, let alone execute with such exact precision with the tournament hanging in the balance.

It’s the type of shot that separates Watson – the quirky left-hander with the pink driver who openly talks about his struggles with on-course focus and abhors few things more than trying to hit a straight shot – from even the best in the game when things are firing on all cylinders.

“The skills have always been there, as you know. But he’s just more relaxed now,” Scott said. “And when these guys, obviously when they enjoy it, they can play at their best and not get too stressed.”