The bumpy, winding road to Augusta National

By Ryan LavnerMarch 3, 2014, 7:00 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – This Road to Augusta is littered with potholes, roadblocks and detours.

Tiger Woods is in need of a physiotherapist. Rory McIlroy could use a punching bag. Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson might want to cue a highlight tape of their 2013 seasons.

And at the end of a star-studded Honda Classic – which, you might recall, featured seven of the top nine players in the world – there was No. 8 McIlroy squaring off against No. 77 Ryan Palmer, No. 110 Russell Henley and No. 206 Russell Knox.

Not exactly the showdown we anticipated.

It’s easy to chalk that up to coincidence, a bad week for a lot of good players on a course that doesn’t always identify the best talent in the field. (Anyone remember the 2013 final group of Michael Thompson and Luke Guthrie?) But the biggest takeaway is that in the absence of a dominant star, golf is deeper and more unpredictable than ever, and the sport faces three major questions with Masters Monday now only five weeks away.

The biggest question, of course, is: What’s wrong with Tiger?

Already off to his slowest start ever as a pro, Woods bailed with five holes to play Sunday, citing lower back spasms. That’s the same injury that sent him to his knees in pain during The Barclays in August, and the same injury that forced him to shelve the clubs during the winter. Not particularly sharp in any of his three appearances this year, it’s unknown whether that suspect play is because of inactivity or injury, or perhaps a combination of the two.

What’s clear is that both his short- and long-term future is in doubt. His reign at world No. 1 could end this week at Doral, and his Masters prospects (and beyond) will grow even bleaker if his condition does not improve. Soon.

Will Woods, at 38, ever enjoy another injury-free season? Only once in the past seven years (2009) has he not had to skip a tournament or withdraw because of injury. That the official reason has been five different ailments (knee, Achilles, neck, elbow, back) only provides further proof that his brittle body is breaking down.

But with all of the focus on Woods, let’s not forget that his chief rival hasn’t exactly sprinted out of the gates, either. Since winning the Open last July, Mickelson has just one top-10 in his last 12 PGA Tour starts, including last week’s trunk-slammer at the Honda. After six starts he ranks 114th in putting – an ominous sign with the Masters fast approaching.

The phasing out of the old guard leads directly to the season’s second big question: Is the PGA Tour’s youth movement here to stay?

No doubt, as Henley, 24, became the eighth under-30 winner in 15 starts this season, following the triumphs of Webb Simpson, Chris Kirk, Dustin Johnson, Harris English, Patrick Reed, Scott Stallings and Jason Day. Henley is also now one of four players under 25 with multiple wins.

The best young player of them all, of course, is McIlroy, 24, and he hasn’t won on the PGA Tour in 18 months. That he was in contention in his third consecutive stroke-play event was encouraging, but his Sunday 74 at the Honda was his biggest setback since the mid-round walk-off a year earlier. In command all week, and with no one racing to catch him on the final day, McIlroy lost five shots to par during an 11-hole stretch and failed to birdie the par 5 in the playoff.

“It was a perfect opportunity to win,” he admitted afterward, and moral victories are of little interest to a former world No. 1 with grand ambitions.

Assuming he can dust himself off, McIlroy, a two-time major winner already, figures to once again be a factor at all of the year’s biggest tournaments. But for all of the talk about the Tour’s new breed of stars, he is one of the few 20-somethings who have enjoyed success in the majors in recent years. Of the 33 majors since the 2005 PGA, only nine have been won by a player in his 20s. Sure, there remains a learning curve, but the major championships are more wide open than ever before.

Oh, and speaking of majors, the season’s other big question: Who is the early Masters favorite, anyway?

In our instant-analysis world, the answer seemingly changes every week. First it was Jimmy Walker. Then it was 2012 champion Bubba Watson. Then it was Match Play champion and last year’s late leader, Jason Day. Now, it seems, it might be whichever big star can shake off the early-season doldrums and rise to the occasion.  

Hey, no one ever said the Road to Augusta was a straight shot north.

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Masters champ Reed: 'I definitely had a chance'

By Will GrayJune 17, 2018, 11:55 pm

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – Patrick Reed’s Grand Slam bid made it all the way to the closing stretch of the final round at the U.S. Open.

Reed had never cracked the top 10 in a major championship before a runner-up finish at last year’s PGA Championship, and he followed that with a convincing victory at the Masters in April. In the U.S. Open, despite starting the final round three shots behind a quartet of co-leaders, he made a concerted effort to add a second major title.

With Shinnecock Hills declawed in response to third-round conditions that bordered on unplayable, Reed birdied each of his first three holes and five of his first seven to move to 1 over and within a shot of Brooks Koepka’s lead. He could get no closer, though, as three bogeys in a four-hole stretch on Nos. 9-12 effectively ended his title bid.

Reed finished alone in fourth place at 4 over, three shots behind Koepka after closing with a 2-under 68.

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“Of course, Grand Slam would have been nice. But you know, I mean honestly, to me, that was really the last thing on my mind,” Reed said. “It was go out, play some solid golf, try to post a number and see if you can get the job done. I had a chance. I definitely had a chance.”

It’s the third top-15 finish at the U.S. Open in the last four years for Reed, who tied for 13th at Chambers Bay and finished T-14 last year at Erin Hills.

Reed was bidding to erase a nine-shot deficit after 36 holes, which would have been the second-largest comeback in tournament history. He was also looking to join Craig Wood, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth on the short list of players to capture the Masters and U.S. Open in the same year.

“Of course it’s disappointing,” Reed said. “But at the same time … To finish in the top 10 my last three majors, and to have a chance to really win all three of them and to close one off, it means a lot.”

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Watching Koepka, Fleetwood knew he was one shot short

By Will GrayJune 17, 2018, 11:33 pm

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – In the end, even a record-tying performance wasn’t enough for Tommy Fleetwood at the U.S. Open.

Fleetwood started the final round at Shinnecock Hills six shots off the pace, but he quickly moved up the board with a run of four birdies over his first seven holes. He added four more in a row on Nos. 12-15, and he had a 9-footer for birdie on No. 18 to become the first player to ever shoot a 62 in the U.S. Open.

He missed, and that proved to be the difference – for both the record and the tournament.

Fleetwood waited around in player hospitality for the next three hours while the leaders finished, alternating between watching the golf (with sandwich in hand) and playing with his newborn son, Frankie. He was on the chipping green when Brooks Koepka completed play at 1-over 281, successfully defending his title and finishing one shot ahead of Fleetwood.

“Brooks kept giving me like a little bit of hope, and then he’d hole a putt just to stab you in the stomach a little bit,” Fleetwood said. “I always just had that feeling that I was one shy, so I never really got massively, massively excited.”

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This was the first year the U.S. Open would have gone to a two-hole, aggregate playoff, so Fleetwood needed to stay loose for a possible overtime that in previous years would have instead been an 18-hole playoff on Monday. He emerged from the locker room and headed to the range to warm up after Koepka birdied No. 16 to take a two-shot lead with two holes to play.

“I just thought, 'I should really go up, because you never know,'” Fleetwood said. “I mean, the worst thing that could happen is if something did happen and I wasn’t really ready, so it’s better warming up with that intention.”

The solo runner-up is a career-best major finish for Fleetwood, who also finished fourth last year at Erin Hills. He now shares a piece of tournament history, becoming just the sixth player to shoot a 63, joining a list that includes Jack Nicklaus, Tom Weiskopf, Johnny Miller, Vijay Singh and Justin Thomas.

And after torching a demanding layout to the tune of eight birdies, he insisted he won’t dwell much on the final putt that got away – even though Koepka’s closing bogey meant that it ultimately made the difference.

“The putt on 18, I actually wanted more for the 62 at the time, and then it became a thing for the tournament,” Fleetwood said. “Obviously, that’s the putt that will play on your mind because that was the last shot you hit and that was your chance. But I missed some putts in the week, and I made some putts. I think everybody did. And your score is your score. And for me, just getting that close to winning a major again, I think that is the ultimate thing I’ll take from it.”

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DJ and more congratulate Koepka on social media

By Golf Channel DigitalJune 17, 2018, 11:31 pm

Brooks Koepka won his second consecutive U.S. Open title at Shinnecock Hills. Dustin Johnson, his friend and playing competitor on Sunday, was quick to congratulate Koepka. And he wasn't alone.

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Firefighter Parziale ties for low am with dad on bag

By Associated PressJune 17, 2018, 11:07 pm

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – Leaning on his club, Matt Parziale crossed one leg over the other and placed the free hand on his hip. His caddie mirrored his position and used Parziale's bag as his source of support. The two looked almost identical, just one older than the other.

Being related will do that.

Parziale's dad, Vic Parziale, has been with his son throughout his entire U.S. Open journey, starting Monday and ending Father's Day. Matt finished 5 over par Sunday to tie for low amateur at 16 over for the tournament.

''We do stand alike out there,'' Vic said. ''It's funny.''

Said Matt: ''I don't like it, but that's how life goes.''

He's kidding. The idea of turning into his dad doesn't scare him.

''He's the best guy I know,'' Matt said. ''If I can be half that good, I'll be doing all right.''

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It's a classic like father, like son relationship.

Matt, 31, is a full-time firefighter back home in Brockton, Massachusetts. Vic retired from the same station last year after 32 years.

The two, obviously, also share a love for golf.

''He stinks now,'' Matt said. ''I'd have to play pretty bad to let him win. He used to be much better than he is now.''

Matt says he was 14 the first time he beat his dad. Vic says his son was 15. Either way, once Matt beat Vic's 73 by a stroke as a teenager, it was game over.

Vic never beat his son again.

''Golf skipped a generation for sure,'' Vic said. ''Because I don't play like him.''

As the first mid-amateur to make a cut at the U.S. Open in 15 years, Matt's second round was his best, carding a 73 with a birdie on No. 18 that guaranteed him a spot in the final rounds.

On the last day, Matt shot a 75 to end up at 296, the same mark fellow amateur Luis Gagne scored. Will Grimmer was the only other amateur to make the cut, and he finished 23 over at 303. The tournament started with 20 amateurs.

This was Matt's first U.S. Open. He played at the Masters earlier this year, but did not advance after two rounds. Vic was his caddie there, too.

''Mostly, I just carry the bag and keep my mouth shut,'' Vic said.

His specialty is wind: Matt does go to his dad for advice there. It helped this week.

''I don't get paid,'' Vic said. ''I don't want to be, of course. I just love doing it.''

The two have worked alongside each other for as long as either can remember. After college at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida, Matt turned pro but called it quits after a couple years when it didn't pay off financially. That's when he became a firefighter.

But Matt never fully gave up golf, regaining his amateur status and going on to win the U.S. Mid-Amateur championship back in October. Vic caddied, of course.

''It's not something that happened over night,'' Vic said. ''He just wasn't lucky getting here. He really worked hard on his game.''

Being a firefighter actually allows him to practice and compete often. Matt works two 24-hour shifts a week.

He's not returning straight to his full-time job immediately, though. His upcoming golf schedule is packed. Starting Wednesday, Matt will compete in the Northeast Amateur tournament. Then he'll have the U.S. Amateur - after he gets married on Aug. 3 - and more.

Wherever and whatever, Vic will be standing nearby.

''He's always given me the opportunity to succeed,'' Matt said. ''None of this is possible without his support and his help.''