Z. Johnson's story prevails above others at Open

By Rex HoggardJuly 20, 2015, 9:12 pm

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – It was neither historic nor heartwarming, but the hurried final hours of the 144th Open Championship were infinitely entertaining.

A championship many didn’t think would ever end wrapped up with the masses pining for more when the proceedings were drawn to a close by Zach Johnson, who with a relatively mundane par at his 76th hole made the transition from being arguably the game’s most underrated major champion to an undisputed Hall of Famer.

It was a strangely orderly finale to what otherwise felt like a Grand Slam fire drill.

A day that began with three players tied for the lead quickly descended into a game of musical chairs, with eight players holding at least a share of the lead, and the event’s first playoff since 2009.

Johnson, already an 11-time PGA Tour winner and major champion, took his turn at the top with a birdie at the 10th hole after an opening nine of 31. He staked his claim to the claret jug with a charging 30-footer for birdie at the last for a final-round 66 more than an hour before the trailing game completed their round.

From there he watched and waited. He watched Jason Day, one of the 54-hole leaders, play his final 12 holes in even par to finish a stroke out of the playoff.

He watched Adam Scott move into a share of the lead with a birdie on No. 7 only to endure another painful Open collapse playing his last five holes in 5 over.

“It's hard to digest it all at the moment,” an emotional Scott said after a closing 71. “Maybe it was too much to ask today.”

He watched Sergio Garcia do what Sergio Garcia does, which is come agonizingly close to his first elusive major only to find a way to lose. But mostly he watched Jordan Spieth, the 21-year-old new standard in golf come closer to winning the single-season Grand Slam than anyone since Tiger Woods in 2002.

Although disappointed, Spieth didn’t disappoint, keeping pace with the frenzy with one clutch putt after another. He rolled in a birdie putt at No. 6 from 11 feet to move to within one stroke and bounced back from a stunning four-putt – his first four-putt in ... well, forever – with a 15-footer for birdie at No. 9.

At the 16th hole the would-be king – he would have unseated Rory McIlroy atop the Official World Golf Ranking with a victory at St. Andrews – charged in a 50-footer for birdie to join the traffic jam atop the leaderboard, but he failed to convert from 5 feet at the 17th hole for par and missed the green at the last to end his historic run.

“I think the way that I played this week and especially today would have won the U.S. Open by more than just a shot,” said Spieth, who tied for fourth a stroke out of the playoff after a closing 69. “The kind of golf that was played by the field this week, it just took some special golf. Whoever comes out the champion, that's a hell of a major.”

It was also a hell of a run for Spieth.

To put his effort in perspective, consider that the last time a player won the Masters, U.S. Open and Open Championship in the same season (Ben Hogan in 1953), the now-iconic Old Course Hotel was just a field and the road that defines the 17th hole was still a railway.

It was all part of one of the strangest Open Championships in recent memory, with play being halted by both rain and wind at various points, which is the competitive equivalent to a breakfast ball on the first tee of the Old Course.

It just doesn’t happen. Not at the Open, and certainly not at St. Andrews.

In the playoff, Johnson – who finished 72 holes tied with Louis Oosthuizen and Marc Leishman at 15 under – struck first with birdies at the first two extra frames in the four-hole aggregate session. But, like he did in regulation, he made a mess of what has become the most difficult hole in major championship golf, missing his approach at the 17th hole short and hitting his third shot over the green.

But at an event that was defined by putting and wedge play it only stands to reason that Johnson – who earlier this week referred to hitting “a lot of loft,” which is golf geek speak for short approach shots – would prevail with a par at the last to beat Oosthuizen by a stroke.

“The key certainly for the week is patience and perseverance, without question, and I think in the playoff in particular,” Johnson said. “It was truly about just making the best of the opportunities, because you know the other two guys are not going to let it slide.”

As a general rule the golf gods are a cruel lot far removed from sentimentality and bouts of nostalgia, just ask the likes of Garcia and Scott, bridesmaids again at the game’s oldest championship.

But on Monday at the Home of Golf the cosmic caretakers peered through the gloom that had descended on St. Andrews and saw another tale worth telling.

It wasn’t Spieth and his attempt at the single-season Grand Slam, or Scott whose claret jug visions were undone by that familiar balky broomstick, or even Garcia and his ghosts of Opens past.

Instead, it was Johnson and his story of limitless determination. A bona fide grinder from way back, the kid from Iowa is the exception to the Tour player norm, humble and hardworking with a chip on his shoulder that he has come by honestly, through the hardscrabble days on the mini-tours to two major championships.

“On Sunday [at Royal Lytham in 2012] he was paired with Ernie [Els]. That showed him what could happen. That showed him that he just needed to stay patient,” said Dr. Morris Pickens, Johnson’s sport psychologist. “He’s always played golf knowing what he can do and what he can’t do. A lot of guys play full bore and come over here and have to switch their mindset. Zach didn’t have to do that.”

It was signature Zach, workmanlike and wildly understated. He didn’t overpower the softer side of the Old Course as many had predicted Dustin Johnson would, he simply picked it apart one swing at a time and outlasted a collection of contenders that would have filled the adjacent R&A clubhouse.

After his win at the Masters in 2007, Johnson defined himself as a guy from Cedar Rapids. On Monday at the Old Course he offered an update.

“I’m a normal guy from Cedar Rapids who lives in southeast Georgia who has a green jacket and something most guys don’t get to drink out of right now,” he smiled with a nod toward the claret jug.

After the hectic give and take of a manic Monday the playoff was otherwise anti-climactic with Oosthuizen missing a 4-footer for par at the third extra hole (No. 17) that would have knotted him with Johnson, but then the golf gods had already given so much.

Who would have thought a major played without both Woods and McIlroy – widely considered golf’s past and present – could have been so compelling?

The 144th Open was neither historic nor heartwarming, but there was more than enough heartbreak and heroics to fill the void.

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Stunner: Inbee Park steps aside for Int. Crown

By Randall MellJuly 17, 2018, 4:00 pm

There was a big surprise this week when the LPGA announced the finalized lineups for the UL International Crown.

Rolex world No. 1 Inbee Park won’t be teeing it up for the host South Koreans Oct. 4-7 in Incheon.

She has withdrawn, saying she wanted another Korean to be able to experience the thrill of representing her country.

It’s a stunner given the importance the LPGA has placed on taking the UL International Crown to South Korea and its golf-crazy allegiance to the women’s game in the Crown’s first staging outside the United States.

Two-time major champion In Gee Chun will replace Park.

"It was my pleasure and honor to participate in the first UL International Crown in 2014 and at the 2016 Olympics, and I cannot describe in one word how amazing the atmosphere was to compete as a representative of my country,” Park said. “There are so many gifted and talented players in Korea, and I thought it would be great if one of the other players was given the chance to experience the 2018 UL International Crown.”

Chun, another immensely popular player in South Korea, was the third alternate, so to speak, with the world rankings used to field teams. Hye Jin Choi and Jin Young Ko were higher ranked than Chun but passed because of commitments made to competing in a Korean LPGA major that week. The other South Koreans who previously qualified are So Yeon Ryu, Sung Hyun Park and I.K. Kim.

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Na: I can admit, 'I went through the yips'

By Rex HoggardJuly 17, 2018, 3:35 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Following his victory two weeks ago at A Military Tribute at the Greenbrier, Kevin Na said his second triumph on the PGA Tour was the most rewarding of his career.

Although he declined to go into details as to why the victory was so gratifying at The Greenbrier, as he completed his practice round on Tuesday at the Open Championship, Na shed some light on how difficult the last few years have been.

“I went through the yips. The whole world saw that. I told people, 'I can’t take the club back,'” Na said on Tuesday at Carnoustie. “People talked about it, 'He’s a slow player. Look at his routine.' I was admitting to the yips. I didn’t use the word ‘yip’ at the time. Nobody wants to use that word, but I’m over it now so I can use it. The whole world saw it.”

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

Na, who made headlines for his struggles to begin his backswing when he found himself in the lead at the 2012 Players Championship, said he asked other players who had gone through similar bouts with the game’s most dreaded ailment how they were able to get through it.

“It took time,” he said. “I forced myself a lot. I tried breathing. I tried a trigger. Some guys will have a forward press or the kick of the right knee. That was hard and the crap I got for it was not easy.”

The payoff, however, has steadily arrived this season. Na said he’d been confident with his game this season following a runner-up showing at the Genesis Open and a fourth-place finish at the Fort Worth Invitational, and he felt he was close to a breakthrough. But being able to finish a tournament like he did at The Greenbrier, where he won by five strokes, was particularly rewarding.

“All good now,” he smiled. “I knew I was good enough to win again, but until you do it sometimes you question yourself. It’s just the honest truth.”

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Koepka still has chip on his chiseled shoulder

By Ryan LavnerJuly 17, 2018, 3:06 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Brooks Koepka prepared more for this Open than last year's.

He picked up his clubs three times.

That’s three more than last summer, when the only shots he hit between the summer Opens was during a commercial shoot for Michelob Ultra at TPC Sawgrass. He still tied for sixth at The Open a month later.

This time, Koepka kept his commitment to play the Travelers, then hit balls three times between the final round in Hartford and this past Sunday, when he first arrived here at Carnoustie.

Not that he was concerned, of course.

Koepka’s been playing golf for nearly 20 years. He wasn’t about to forget to how to swing a club after a few weeks off.

“It was pretty much the same thing,” he said Tuesday, during his pre-tournament news conference. “I shared it with one of my best friends, my family, and it was pretty much the same routine. It was fun. We enjoyed it. But I’m excited to get back inside the ropes and start playing again. I think you need to enjoy it any time you win and really embrace it and think about what you’ve done.”

At Shinnecock Hills, Koepka became the first player in nearly 30 years to repeat as U.S. Open champion – a major title that helped him shed his undeserved reputation as just another 20-something talent who relies solely on his awesome power. In fact, he takes immense pride in his improved short game and putting inside 8 feet.

“I can take advantage of long golf courses,” he said, “but I enjoy plotting my way around probably - more than the bombers’ golf courses - where you’ve got to think, be cautious sometimes, and fire at the center of the greens. You’ve got to be very disciplined, and that’s the kind of golf I enjoy.”

Which is why Koepka once again fancies his chances here on the type of links that helped launch his career.

Koepka was out of options domestically after he failed to reach the final stage of Q-School in 2012. So he packed his bags and headed overseas, going on a tear on the European Challenge Tour (Europe’s equivalent of the Web.com circuit) and earning four titles, including one here in Scotland. That experience was the most fun and beneficial part of his career, when he learned to win, be self-sufficient and play in different conditions.

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“There’s certain steps, and I embraced it,” Koepka said. “I think that’s where a lot of guys go wrong. You are where you are, and you have to make the best of it instead of just putting your head down and being like, 'Well, I should be on the PGA Tour.' Well, guess what? You’re not. So you’ve got to suck it up wherever you are, make the best of it, and keep plugging away and trying to win everything you can because, eventually, if you’re good enough, you will get out here.”

Koepka has proved that he’s plenty good enough, of course: He’s a combined 20 under in the majors since the beginning of 2017, the best of any player during that span. But he still searches long and hard for a chip to put on his chiseled shoulder.

In his presser after winning at Shinnecock, Koepka said that he sometimes feels disrespected and forgotten, at least compared to his more-ballyhooed peers. It didn’t necessarily bother him – he prefers to stay out of the spotlight anyway, eschewing a media tour after each of his Open titles – but it clearly tweaked him enough for him to admit it publicly.

That feeling didn’t subside after he went back to back at the Open, either. On U.S. Open Sunday, ESPN’s Instagram page didn’t showcase a victorious Koepka, but rather a video of New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. dunking a basketball.

“He’s like 6-foot-2. He’s got hops – we all know that – and he’s got hands. So what’s impressive about that?” Koepka said. “But I always try to find something where I feel like I’m the underdog and put that little chip on my shoulder. Even if you’re No. 1, you’ve got to find a way to keep going and keep that little chip on.

“I think I’ve done a good job of that. I need to continue doing that, because once you’re satisfied, you’re only going to go downhill. You try to find something to get better and better, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Now 28, Koepka has a goal of how many majors he’d like to win before his career is over, but he wasn’t about to share it.

Still, he was adamant about one thing: “Right now I’m focused on winning. That’s the only thing I’ve got in my mind. Second place just isn’t good enough. I finished second a lot, and I’m just tired of it. Once you win, it kind of propels you. You have this mindset where you just want to keep winning. It breeds confidence, but you want to have that feeling of gratification: I finally did this. How cool is this?”

So cool that Koepka can’t wait to win another one.

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Despite results, Thomas loves links golf

By Jay CoffinJuly 17, 2018, 2:48 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Despite poor results in two previous Open Championships, Justin Thomas contends that he has what it takes to be a good links player. In fact, he believes that he is a good links player.

Two years ago at Royal Troon, Thomas shot 77 in the second round to tie for 53rd place. He was on the wrong side of the draw that week that essentially eliminated anyone from contention who played late Friday afternoon.

Last year at Royal Birkdale, Thomas made a quintuple-bogey 9 on the par-4 sixth hole in the second round and missed the cut by two shots.

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“I feel like I’ve played more than two Opens, but I haven’t had any success here,” Thomas said Tuesday at Carnoustie. “I feel like I am a good links player, although I don’t really have the results to show.”

Although he didn’t mention it as a reason for success this week, Thomas is a much different player now than he was two years ago, having ascended to the No. 1 position in the world for a few weeks and now resting comfortably in the second spot.

He also believes a high golf IQ, and the ability to shape different shots into and with the wind are something that will help him in The Open over the next 20 years.

“I truly enjoy the creativity,” Thomas said. “It presents a lot of different strategies, how you want to play it, if you want to be aggressive, if you want to be conservative, if you want to attack some holes, wait on certain winds, whatever it might be. It definitely causes you to think.

“With it being as firm as it is, it definitely adds a whole other variable to it.”