World's top players primed to create classic U.S. Open

By Rex HoggardJune 13, 2012, 6:15 pm

SAN FRANCISCO – If championship venues, like the championships they host, are the sum of their parts, count The Olympic Club as the game’s ultimate buzzkill.

It is, with a monsoon of respect to the Jack Flecks of the major championship world, where great Grand Slam expectations go to die. From Fleck’s stunning upset of Ben Hogan at the 1955 U.S. Open to Scott Simpson’s torrid finish in 1987 to clip Tom Watson, the Lake Course may have identified the week’s best player but not the most popular or predictable champion.

Four times the U.S. Golf Association has rolled the greatest show on grass onto the peninsula and each time the golf world came away feeling as if they’d just been punked. The masses wanted Hogan. We got Fleck. Watson was the man of the moment, but Simpson stole the show.

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Yet even as the ubiquitous marine layer engulfed the property early Wednesday it was hard not to imagine that this time would be different. If the ghosts of Olympic Opens past were swirling about the morning fog the buzz on property refused to yield.

Whether it is Tiger Woods’ official return to form two weeks ago at the Memorial, Dustin Johnson’s return from injury last week in Memphis or Phil Mickelson’s hopeful return to another West Coast Open, it’s easy to imagine that this time things will finally go to script.

With so many cosmic tumblers poised not even the Lake Course could make a mess of this marquee, could it?

Even those who call the shots at the USGA sense the change.

On Tuesday, Woods offered the perfect sound bite for the national championship: “It is just the most demanding test that there is in golf,” he said. But this is not your father, or grandfather’s, Olympic Club.

USGA executive director Mike Davis has turned the Lake Course upside down, transforming the first hole, which ranked as the easiest during the ’98 championship as a par 5, into a par 4 and No. 17, which played the toughest in ’98 as a par 4, into a par 5.

There’s a driveable par 4, the 288-yard seventh, an opening six holes that some say will drive players crazy and a closing stretch (Nos. 16-18) that, in theory, could be played in 3 under if the stars were to align properly.

Memorable Opens, however, are defined by the players, not the pitch, and the USGA wasted no time sending out its best lineup.

At 7:33 a.m. PT, Masters champion Bubba Watson will have the best seat in golf when he heads out with Woods and Mickelson, a title bout that would suggest that even the USGA is keen to lift the Lake Course from the throes of mediocrity.

The buildup to Thursday at the Open is always awash with hype, but on Tuesday even Mickelson was getting into the act.

“I get excited to play with Tiger,” Lefty gushed. “I love it. I think we all do. He gets the best out of me. . . . (He’s) the one player I’m most concerned about if I play my best golf that may have a chance to beat me.”

Not surprising given his pedestrian record in recent head-to-head duels, most notably this year in the final round at Pebble Beach when Mickelson beat Woods by 11 strokes and the field by two, “Red Shirt” was not as engaged by the high-profile three-ball.

“I don’t think we’re going to talk about a lot,” Woods said. “I think this is the tournament the guys least conversate.”

Not to worry, there will be plenty of talk about the pairing even if the conversation promises to be light inside the ropes. But the opportunity for a long awaited Olympic moment goes well beyond Woods and Mickelson.

On the opposite side of the draw from the Lefty-Tiger Show will be defending champion Rory McIlroy, who after three consecutive missed cuts seemed to find new life, if not the center of the clubface, last week in Memphis. He led after two rounds, struggled on Saturday and tied for seventh at TPC Southwind.

It was progress by any measure for the man who lapped the field last year at Congressional by eight strokes and seamlessly transformed himself from potential superstar to heir apparent.

His current slide aside, McIlroy navigated the eventful 12 months since his major breakthrough with surprising ease and seems at peace with the expectations his play has created, however unrealistic.

“You're not just happy with top-10s anymore, and you're not happy finishing in the top 5. It's a good result, but it's not what you want,” McIlroy said. “Maybe a couple of years ago it would be a step in the right direction and everything is good. But when you get yourself into positions like I did last week you want to finish them off and get wins.”

If the Woods-Mickelson pairing promises to dominate the conversation on Thursday the three-ball of McIlroy, Lee Westwood and Luke Donald quietly may be the week’s most promising threesome.

Westwood has four top-10 finishes at the U.S. Open, including his 2008 heartbreak at Torrey Pines, and is fresh off a victory last week in Europe; while world No. 1 Donald lapped a deep field last month at the BMW PGA Championship and likely realizes that the relatively short Lake Course may be his best chance to win an Open.

Olympic will also be Mickelson’s last chance to score that coveted California Open, a title that has eluded the San Diego native who has five second-place showings in the national championship.

The next California Open will be in 2019 at Pebble Beach. Mickelson will be 48, maybe not past his competitive expiration date but hardly a legitimate contender. If Lefty is going to land the one title that has painfully eluded him on home soil it’s now or never.

“If you look at my game from 20,000 feet, you'd say, well, that's probably not the best setup for the way he likes to play. And yet five times I've had opportunities, I've come close,” Mickelson said of his Open record. “Could have, should have won a few of those. And it gives me the belief that I can compete and be in contention on Sunday in this tournament.”

Or maybe it’s Woods’ turn to get off a major schnied that stretches back to the 2008 U.S. Open, or McIlroy’s time to become the first back-to-back champion since 1989, or Westwood and Donald’s chance to get on the Grand Slam board.

It is, at least on paper, an embarrassment of riches for 112th U.S. Open, and for some reason it feels like Olympic Club will finally get it right.

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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.

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DJ hits 489-yard drive, but it doesn't count for history

By Rex HoggardMarch 24, 2018, 12:22 am

AUSTIN, Texas – Dustin Johnson is no stranger to big drives, but even for DJ this one was impressive.

Trailing in his Day 3 match at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, Johnson launched a drive at the par-5 12th hole that traveled 489 yards, but that number comes with an asterisk.

“He got lucky it hit the road,” smiled Kevin Kisner, who was leading the world No. 1, 3 up, at the time. “I thought he would make an eagle for sure, he only had 80 yards [to the hole]. He didn’t hit a very good putt.”

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Johnson’s drive, which was 139 yards past Kisner’s tee shot, is the longest recorded on the PGA Tour in the ShotLink era, surpassing Davis Love III’s drive of 476 yards in 2004 at the Tournament of Champions.

The drive will not go into the record books, however, because the Tour doesn’t count statistics from the Match Play.

It should also be noted, Kisner halved the 12th hole with a birdie and won the match, 4 and 3, to advance to the round of 16.

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Durant leads Champions event in Mississippi

By Associated PressMarch 24, 2018, 12:21 am

BILOXI, Miss. - Joe Durant had three straight birdies in a back-nine burst and a shot 6-under 66 on Friday to take the first-round lead in the PGA Tour Champions' Rapiscan Systems Classic.

Durant birdied the par-4 11th and 12th and par-5 13th in the bogey-free round at breezy and rain-softened Fallen Oak. Because of the wet conditions, players were allowed to lift, clean and place their golf balls in the fairway.

''It just sets up nice to my eye,'' Durant said. ''It's a beautiful golf course and it's very challenging. The tee shots seem to set up well for me, but the greens are maybe as quick as I've ever seen them here. You really have to put the ball in the right spots. I played very nice today. With the wind swirling like it was, I'm really happy.''

He won the Chubb Classic last month in Naples, Florida, for his third victory on the 50-and-over tour.

Full-field scores from the Rapiscan Systems Classic

''Done this long enough, Friday's just one day,'' Durant said. ''Especially in a three-day tournament, you've got to go out and shoot three good numbers. Fortunate to put one on the board, but I know I have to back it up with a couple of good days because you can get passed very quickly out here.''

Mark Calcavecchia was a stroke back. He won last month in Boca Raton, Florida

''It's probably my best round I've ever had here and it was a tough day to play,'' Calcavecchia said. ''The greens are just lightning fast. They're pretty slopey greens, so very difficult to putt.''

Steve Stricker was third at 68. He took the Tucson, Arizona, event three weeks ago for his first senior victory.

''Just getting it around and managing my game I think like I always do,'' Stricker said. ''You get in the wrong position here with the greens being so fast and you're going to be in trouble. I did that a couple times today.''

Billy Mayfair, Billy Andrade and David McKenzie shot 69. Jerry Kelly, the winner of the season-opening event in Hawaii, was at 70 with Wes Short Jr., Glen Day, Gene Sauers and Jesper Parnevik.

Bernhard Langer opened with a 71, and two-time defending champion Miguel Angel Jimenez had a 72.

Vijay Singh, coming off his first senior victory two weeks ago in Newport Beach, California, had a 73.